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Francine Prose Biography (1947-) - Sidelights

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Francine Prose has enjoyed a long and accomplished career as an author of unique novels and short stories for adults and also for children, works of fiction that blend elements of the real with the fantastic. She published her first novel, Judah the Pious, when she was in her twenties, and many critics praised it as a work beyond its author's years. The story is about an eighteenth-century rabbi who teaches the King of Poland that there are some things in the world that defy ordinary reason. In this book, Prose first demonstrates techniques, themes, and writing styles that appear throughout her body of work. Her deceptively simple style and fanciful subject matter lend themselves well to her later children's stories.

Prose has added elements of the fanciful, allegorical, or magical to nearly every book she has written, whether it is the voodoo conjured by title character Marie Laveau in the novel set in nineteenth-century New Orleans, the strange belief in a "universal fluid" that connects all creatures and can do almost anything in Animal Magnetism, or the confusion between appearances and reality and elements of spirituality in Hungry Hearts. Some of these books, such as Hungry Hearts and Judah the Pious, have Jewish characters, but most of Prose's adult titles cover a diverse range of people, including seventeenth-century Italian actors in The Glorious Ones, the half-Black title character in Marie Laveau, or the modern-day tabloid journalist in Bigfoot Dreams.

While Prose's adult works have touched on various subjects, her fiction for children, which she began writing in earnest in the mid-1990s, all has a basis in Jewish folklore. Her first children's book, Stories from Our Living Past, is a collection of Jewish tales published only a year after her debut novel. With her second work for a younger audience, however, Prose took liberties with tradition for the sake of the story.

In Dybbuk: A Story Made in Heaven, the author combines the Jewish legend, about how angels in heaven match lovers before they are born, with the folklore story of the supernatural dybbuk. Leah and Chonon are two youngsters from nearby shtetls who fall in love, but Leah's parents want her to marry Benya, an old, mean man who is rich. Just when she is about to be forced to marry Benya, Leah begins to talk and sneeze the same way that Chonon does. The rabbi declares that she is possessed by Chonon's dybbuk, and nothing can be done to help her until the two lovers are allowed to wed. Reviewers such as Hazel Rochman of Booklist found the story "wonderfully theatrical; there's no way to read this without acting the parts and laughing out loud." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books commentator Betsy Hearne wrote: "It's fun and it's funny—one of those picture books which, by staying true to an ethnic tradition, reaches beyond it as well."

In the role of reteller in The Angel's Mistake: Stories of Chelm, Prose presents the Jewish legend of a town inhabited entirely by foolish people. The founders of Chelm, the legend goes, arrived on Earth when two angels accidentally dropped a bag of foolish souls and they all ended up in one spot instead of scattered through the world as intended. The townspeople do such ridiculous things as wear their hats upside down to keep them dry and carry a huge rock up a mountain to let it roll down because that is supposedly easier than carrying it to its original destination. The villagers burn the town down after lighting a fire that goes out of control when the firemen try to smother it with wooden logs, and the fools finally scatter across the countryside as the angels had first planned. Hannah B. Zeiger, writing in Horn Book, called Prose's retelling "a pleasant addition to the many stories of Chelm." The author's matter-of-fact tone, which is characteristic of her adult fiction, makes the Chelmites' exploits all the more funny. As one Kirkus Reviews critic noted, Prose has created an "understated, humorous narrative. Families will find this a savory treat for sharing."

Prose continues to alternate between adult fiction and books on Jewish folklore for children, including the more recent You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-Vavniks. This story is about a simple cobbler, Poor Stupid Schmuel. Because of his habit of fixing shoes for free, he is thought by the town to be a fool. But when his successful prayers end both a drought and a flood, they realize that he is instead a Lamed-Vavnik, one of the thirty-six righteous men born in every generation. You Never Know was praised as "fresh and memorable" by a Publishers Weekly critic and as "an excellent read-aloud" by School Library Journal contributor Susan Scheps.

Prose branched out into the YA genre with After, a story about the lingering effects of a school shooting. After the shooting at Pleasant Valley High, nearby Central High is taken over by purported grief counselor Dr. Willner. But instead of providing counseling, Willner instead turns Central into a virtual prison. Protagonist Tom's friends are caught up in Willner's web of control, and some are sent away and never heard from again. Eventually, Tom learns that the repression at his school is only a small part of a wider plan: students all After shootings at another high school, a crisis counselor takes control of Central High; teachers and students who do not comply to the new security rules disappear. (Cover illustration by Jonathan Barkat.) across the country are being sent away to gulag-style camps as part of the so-called "Operation Turnaround." As Tom gains more knowledge of these events, he and his friend Becca fight against the evil administration and their brainwashed parents, risking their lives in the process. "Because the narrative is kept faithfully inside [Tom's] mind, readers are skillfully left just as unsettled, frightened, and confused as he is himself," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic.

After "raises all-too-relevant questions about the fine line between safety as a means of protection versus encroachment on individual rights and free will," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. This was the point, as Prose explained in an interview for Publishers Weekly: "I'd been doing a lot of thinking about the new security measures . . . taken in schools since the Columbine shootings. I'd even heard that a hotline had been formed for students to report any kids acting 'weird' at their school. I mean really, don't all kids act weird in adolescence? The issue of security and the loss of civil liberties are suddenly so much in our culture, but no one's asking kids how they feel about it."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 45, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 234: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, April 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Dybbuk: A Story Made in Heaven, p. 1444; June 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-Vavniks, p. 1774; August, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Demons' Mistake: A Story from Chelm, p. 2144; June 1, 2003, Bill Ott, review of After, p. 1762.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1996, Betsy Hearne, review of Dybbuk, p. 276; July-August, 1997, p. 408.

Horn Book, July-August, 1997, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of The Angel's Mistake: Stories of Chelm, p. 468; July-August, 1998, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of You Never Know, p. 504; May-June, 2003, Roger Sutton, review of After, p. 357.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1996, p. 379; April 15, 1997, review of The Angel's Mistake, p. 648; March 15, 2003, review of After, p. 476.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Services, April 11, 2001, Marta Salij, interview with Prose, p. 4830.

Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2002, Susan Salter Reynolds, interview with Prose, p. E-11.

Nation, June 16, 2003, review of After, p. 41.

New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1998, Robin Tzannes, review of You Never Know, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, February 12, 1996, review of Dybbuk, p. 71; April 28, 1997, review of The Angel's Mistake, p. 76; May 18, 1998, review of You Never Know, p. 79; August 28, 2000, review of The Demons' Mistake, p. 83; February 24, 2003, interview with Prose, p. 72, and review of After, p. 73.

School Library Journal, April, 1996, Marcia W. Posner, review of Dybbuk, pp. 127-128; August, 1998, Susan Scheps, review of You Never Know, p. 154; October, 2000, Teri Markson, review of The Demons' Mistake, p. 152; May, 2003, Vicki Reutter, review of After, p. 160.

ONLINE

Atlantic Unbound, http://www.theatlantic.com/(March 11, 1998), Katie Bolick, "As the World Thrums: A Conversation with Prose."

Barnes & Noble.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (November 6, 2003), Jamie Brenner, interview with Prose.

Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/(July 28, 2000), interview with Prose.*

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