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Berniece (Louise) Rabe (1928-) - Sidelights

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Children's author Berniece Rabe has drawn on her varied life experiences in creating novels that focus on resilient young protagonists who learn self-reliance by facing difficult times. Rabe knows of what she writes: she grew up in a large, poor family in rural Missouri during the economic depression of the 1930s, and later raised four children of her own. Her novels, which include The Orphans, Tall Enough to Own the World, and Hiding Mr. McNulty, have been described by critics with such adjectives as "vivid," "true-to-life," and "attractive," which suggest the powerful impact Rabe's work can have.

"I was born the twelfth child, one deceased before my birth," Rabe once related in an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). "My parents were poor farmers in southeast Missouri. Nineteen twenty-nine, a year after my birth, the stock market crashed and the bank foreclosed on Dad's farm to make good a note he'd signed for a cousin. Thereafter, we lived at poverty level." To make matters worse, Rabe's mother died when Berniece was only a year old, leaving her father with eleven children and a farm to run. In desperation, he agreed to marry a thirty-six-year-old woman with seven children of her own whose father had deserted them.

Rabe's education began in a one-room schoolhouse, but in the third grade she moved to a large brick school in town. Showing herself to be a good student, after eighth grade Rabe was shuffled among her older siblings so that she could get the best high school education possible under the circumstances. One of these schools, in Venice, California, where her sister Virginia lived, required students to take art, and there Rabe discovered a talent for sculpting.

Having fulfilled virtually all the requirements for high school graduation by the time she was sixteen, Rabe moved to Chicago and found work as a professional model. At age seventeen, on an overseas assignment, she met and fell in love with Walter Rabe, who was stationed in the U.S. Army. The couple soon married, and for the next seventeen years, Rabe devoted herself to the tasks required of a stay-at-home mom, and also helped her husband build two houses in the process.

In 1964, after the birth of her youngest child, Rabe took a creative writing course at a local community college. Her first published novel, Rass, grew from the work she did in this class—but not before about two-thirds of the author's only copy of the manuscript was accidentally discarded and had to be produced again. Finally, after numerous rejections, Rabe received a letter from her agent informing her that Rass had been sold. The story of a young boy—one of ten children—and his attempts to win his father's notice performed well, and soon Rabe's editor asked her to write another book. Rabe has been writing ever since.

Rabe's second novel, Naomi, also features a member of a large, poor Missouri farm family. The eleven-year-old protagonist must cope with her mother's lack of support and her own superstitious belief, acquired from a fortune-teller, that she will not live beyond her fourteenth birthday. A local nurse, however, proves more helpful to the doubtful child, and by the end of the story Naomi, now fourteen—and still alive—has grown and learned to live with her mother. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books praised the book as a "discerning portrait of a young adolescent" and a "vivid portrait of a place and a time and a way of life."

In 1977's The Girl Who Had No Name, Rabe continues exploring family life in rural southeast Missouri during the Depression. Girlie, the youngest of ten sisters, is passed from one sister to another after the death of her mother. Girlie attempts to find out why her father gave her such a generic name, and in the process finds out much about herself and her family. Rabe earned praise for her depiction of a family dealing with difficult times "on its own terms, caring for each other in a way that arouses admiration," according to Ruth M. Stein in Language Arts. "What might seem depressing is relieved by Girlie's lively spunkiness, honesty, and courage," Virginia Haviland similarly commented in Horn Book. The Girl Who Had No Name won the Golden Kite Award for fiction in 1977.

One of Rabe's most popular books, The Balancing Girl, grew out of a more recent personal experience. Her first granddaughter, Rochelle, was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that caused her to be paralyzed from the waist down. "We had our season of mourning for her loss," the author noted in SAAS, "but soon were captured by her personality and all the many things she could do." When Rochelle's mother noted the lack of books about handicapped children, Rabe responded by writing The Balancing Girl. The book was praised by a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor as "just the sort that's needed to fill a gap . . . , for it focuses on Margaret and not on her physical condition."

A sequel to The Balancing Girl, Margaret's Moves, finds the young girl attempting to raise money for a new wheelchair. According to a Booklist critic, "Rabe has done an excellent job of creating a down-to-earth, believable young girl in Margaret" and dubbed the novel "a nice reprise for this most likable heroine."

Where's Chimpy? is a story about Misty, a young girl with Down syndrome. When she misplaces her stuffed monkey, Chimpy, Misty and her father work together to find him. Reviewers delighted in the fact that Rabe emphasizes how delightful Misty is, and that she has a normal, loving relationship with her father. These points are much more important in the story than her handicap, which goes virtually unmentioned. School Library Journal reviewer Margaret C. Howell said that Where's Chimpy? makes a good teaching tool for children because it depicts "a disabled child participating in and enjoying regular play instead of concentrating on the differences."

In Rabe's Rehearsal for the Bigtime four sixth-graders organize a musical performing group supervised by a stern but supportive teenager. Their hard work is recognized when the group wins a prize at a Halloween parade and the father of one member changes his mind about the shortcomings of his daughter. A Kirkus Reviews critic hailed the book as "a cheerfully vigorous . . . lively, realistic story that kids should enjoy."

Rabe's 1989 novel Tall Enough to Own the World focuses on a fifth-grade boy who, the author explained in SAAS, "does a lot of acting-out because he is too different to be happy; he can't read." Rabe recalls of her stepmother that the woman "believed that books complicate life, especially for women, and [she] once pulled a book from my hand and threw it in the heater. After that I hid to read, inside a huge old wardrobe during the winter and in the top of a tree during the summer." The book this childhood memory sparked "is a lively, involving story with well-drawn characters and a believable family situation," according to a Kirkus reviewer.

The 1993 book Magic Comes in Its Time is a friendship story inspired by Rabe's fascination with storks. Jonathan's family likes to say that he was "brought by storks" because the day they adopted him a family of storks began nesting on their roof. When Jonathan's family returns to the German town where he was born, Jonathan looks forward to seeing his good-luck birds—which he hopes will bring him a baby brother. But changes in the town have driven the storks away; only after Jonathan and his new friend Robert work to build a nest in an empty field does Jonathan begin to see his dreams come true. "Fascinating information about storks keeps the plot anchored," noted Stephanie Zvirin in her Booklist review, calling the novel a "pleasant, upbeat tale." A Kirkus Reviews critic likewise found Magic Comes in Its Time "heartwarming," and added that the portrayal of the two boys' growing friendship "is healthy and believable."

In the late 1990s Rabe returned to her roots as a children's book author in publishing Hiding Mr. McMulty. Once again featuring preteen Rass Whitley, who is now age twelve, she also returns to depression-era Missouri. In the novel, Rass's family falls on particularly hard times after their land is flooded. Forced to become sharecroppers, the family members are hired by a local landowner, but their hiring means that black sharecropper Mr. McMulty must be evicted. Rass is torn by this situation, and when McMulty retaliates against his former landlord by killing the man's prize calf, the boy has to decide between protecting his friend and doing what he knows is right for the community as a whole. Praising Rabe's depiction of the boy's "growing understanding that relationships are complex and puzzling," School Library Journal contributor Cindy Darling Codell dubbed the book's ending "upbeat," while in Booklist Hazel Rochman described Hiding Mr. McMulty as a "tense drama" illustrating "conflicts of family and friendship, race and class." The author's inclusion of southern Missouri dialect also inspired critical reaction. While some were concerned that young readers would become confused, Rayna Patton noted in her Voice of Youth Advocates review that "the 1930s Missouri dialect . . . lends rhythm and a kind of poetry to this tale of a boy overcoming emotional and physical dangers." Praising the novel in Horn Book, Mary M. Burns noted that Rabe's "resolution transforms the story of a struggling family into an edge-of-the-seat adventure given substance by its exploration of what it means to be a decent human being."


On her Web site Rabe commented on her reasons for writing for children: "My books speak of survival of hard times. . . . Often there is love and humor interwoven and my characters not only survive, they live with hope and confidence. I write such books for I believe all children have a time for suffering and a time for happiness. How we cope with the suffering determines the time left to happiness. Our struggles cause us to crumble or to grow, the choice is ours. To make my readers aware that there is a choice is why I write."



Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS


Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990, pp. 261-275.


PERIODICALS


Booklist, February 15, 1987, review of Margaret's Moves, p. 903; October 1, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Magic Comes in Its Time, p. 345; October 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Hiding Mr. McMulty, p. 406.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1974; December, 1975, review of Naomi, p. 69; January, 1978, p. 85; February, 1979, review of The Orphans, p. 104; February, 1982, review of The Balancing Girl, p. 114; October, 1988, p. 51; May, 1989, p. 234.

Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1974.

Horn Book, October, 1977, Virginia Haviland, review of The Girl Who Had No Name, pp. 533-534; February, 1982, Kate E. Flanagan, review of The Balancing Girl, p. 36; January-February, 1998, Mary M. Burns, review of Hiding Mr. McMulty, p. 79.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1978, review of The Orphans, p. 1139; July 1, 1987, review of A Smooth Move, p. 998; January 1, 1988, review of Rehearsal for the Big Time, p. 59; June 15, 1988, review of Where's Chimpy?, p. 902; March 1, 1989, review of Tall Enough to Own the World, p. 382; October 15, 1993, review of Magic Comes in Its Time; October 15, 1997, review of Hiding Mr. McMulty, p. 1587.

Language Arts, April, 1978, Ruth M. Stein, review of The Girl Who Had No Name, p. 523; September, 1987, Janet Hickman, review of Margaret's Moves, p. 546.

New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1973, p. 8; June 22, 1975, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly, October 16, 1981, review of The Balancing Girl, p. 79.

School Library Journal, December, 1979; February, 1980, Sandra S. Ridenour, review of Naomi, p. 32; October, 1980, Holly Sanhuber, review of Who's Afraid?, p. 158; October, 1981, p. 134; March, 1987, Margaret C. Howell, review of Margaret's Moves, p. 165; January, 1988, Anne Connor, review of A Smooth Move, p. 69; December, 1988, Margaret C. Howell, review of Where's Chimpy?, p. 92; May, 1989, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Tall Enough to Own the World, p. 111; October, 1989, p. 47; October, 1993, Maggie McEwen, review of Magic Comes in Its Time, p. 128; December, 1997, Cindy Darling Codell, review of Hiding Mr. McMulty, p. 129.

Voice of Youth Advocate, February, 1998, Rayna Patton, review of Hiding Mr. McMulty, p. 390.


ONLINE


Berniece Rabe Home Page, http://www.berniecerabe.com/ (December 17, 2003).

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