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Suzanne Fisher (Suzanne Fisher) Staples (1945-) - Sidelights

review shabanu book fire

Suzanne Fisher Staples's novels about adolescent girls from around the world have been well-received, in part because of their nuanced portrayals of unfamiliar cultures such as those of Pakistan and India. Her "literary protagonists wrestle with developing themselves, while yielding to the culture which imbues them with the whisper of their inevitability," Jinx Stapleton Watson explained in ALAN Review. Staples's own experiences, including some from the many years she spent working as a journalist, fuel her books, she told Publishers Weekly interviewer Lynda Brill. "My books are made up of real stories about real people," she said.

Staples's first novel for young adults, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, tells the story of a spirited young nomadic girl who lives in the Cholistan desert in Pakistan. Though she is perfectly happy to tend to her beloved band of camels, twelve-year-old Shabanu soon finds herself unwillingly betrothed to an older man of her parents' choosing. A series of unfortunate occurrences present her with the opportunity to choose between this arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner—who already has three wives—which would bring peace to her family, and her independence. Echoing the praises of numerous reviewers, Horn Book reviewer Hanna B. Zeiger claimed that the "vivid portrayal of life and death in this desert world is stunning in its honesty." Staples's first book earned her a Newbery Honor citation.

Staples wrote the book out of a need to express what she describes as "the essential humanness of us all." She once commented, "Most cultures have fiction writers who portray their worlds vividly for Western readers. But the Islamic world is different. Thanks in part to terrorism … most of us have a fairly monolithic view of many Islamic societies that reflects fear and revulsion but little or nothing of the poetry and the intellectual, emotional, and general universality we all share with Muslims."

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind provides the reader with many vivid pictures of everyday life in a nomadic community in addition to descriptions of the more colorful marriage preparations and rituals. Maurya Simon, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said, "Some of the most affecting and lyrical passages of the book detail the austere beauty of the Cholistan, as seen through the young narrator's eyes." The critic added: "It is a pleasure to read a book that explores a way of life so profoundly different from our own, and that does so with such sensitivity, admiration, and verisimilitude." Voice of Youth Advocates reviewer Marijo Grimes simply stated: "More multi-cultural [young adult] novels of this caliber are needed in today's market."

Staples continues Shabanu's story in Haveli, a novel that takes its name from the home where Shabanu takes shelter from her tumultuous life. Picking up Shabanu's story six years after the earlier book ended, Staples explores the intrigues among the four wives of the aging Rahim. The youngest, the most beautiful, and the least-cultured of the wives, Shabanu falls prey to the scheming of the elder wives and must use all her wits to protect herself and her young daughter, Mumtaz. Ever the idealist, Shabanu also seeks to protect her best friend from an arranged marriage to her husband's mentally-deficient son. As the intricate plot unwinds, Shabanu loses both her husband and her friend to violent deaths, and falls in love with Omar, a relative of her husband who has returned from the United States.

"While the intricate cast and unfamiliar terms will send readers scuttling to the list of characters and glossary from time to time," wrote Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Betsy Hearne, "the dramatic plot will bring them breathlessly back to the story." Although there is sex and violence, the critic added, "it's never sensationalized and yet will draw YA readers like a magnet." As with Shabanu, reviewers praised Staples' vivid characterization and her power at communicating the essence of an unfamiliar culture. Ellen Fader of Horn Book, for instance, observed that "Staples shows considerable talent in crafting a taut, suspenseful narrative with strong female characters and a terrific sense of place."

In her third novel, Dangerous Skies, Staples turned her attention to the racism that continues to pervade a small town on the shore of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. Two twelve-year-old friends, Buck (who is white) and Tunes (who is black), find the body of their older friend Jorge Rodrigues floating in a creek. The friends suspect Jumbo Rawlins, a respected white landowner, but when Jumbo implicates Tunes in the murder, the friends are brought face-to-face with the different worlds they inhabit. Fearing that her word will not be trusted against the word of a white man, Tunes flees, and Buck begins to question whom he should trust, his longtime friend or the family who advises him to stay clear of Tunes. "Buck's loss of innocence is played out with anguished energy," noted Horn Book reviewer Nancy Vasilakis, and though Tunes is not convicted, she leaves the town forever, her reputation ruined. While some critics thought that some plot elements and characters in this novel were not up the standards of Shabanu and Haveli, many applauded Staples's nuanced treatment of the perils of racism. Several made comparisons between Dangerous Skies and Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, for instance, called Dangerous Skies a "masterfully crafted story" which "boldly conveys uncomfortable truths about society while expressing the innocence of children."

Shiva's Fire also follows the life of a girl from South Asia, this time a poor Hindu Indian girl named Parvati. From the time that she is born, it is clear that Parvati is different from other girls. The circumstances of her birth are unusual: she is born in the middle of a tremendous cyclone, which kills her father and destroys much of her village. The other babies in the village die, but magically, Parvati lives. The maharajah, for whom Parvati's father had been an elephant keeper, also has a seemingly magical child that day—a son, with whom, many years later, Parvati falls in love. An excellent dancer, Parvati receives an offer from a renowned guru to study to become a devadasi, one who serves the gods through sacred dances. Parvati thinks that it is her dharma, her sacred duty, to be a dancer, but when she returns home and meets the maharajah's son, she begins to question if that really is her destiny. Like Parvati, Rama, the maharaja's son, has been living a lonely life, shunned by others for his otherworldly talents yet trying to serve the gods by fulfilling his dharma, and the two together wonder if it would be better to continue in their current paths or to give in to their love. "The injection of a romance in the final quarter of the book might not have worked in less-capable hands," commented Booklist's Ilene Cooper, "but Staples makes the element seem like a natural evolution."

Many reviewers noted that, just as Staples faithfully recreated Pakistani culture in Shabanu, she does the same for India in Shiva's Fire. She "is a magnificent storyteller who beautifully recreates the colors, sounds, and smells of India," Debra Mitts Smith wrote in Kliatt. Beyond that, Brill commented, "Staples gives an 'insider's' view of Asian culture without imposing judgment or injecting American values."

The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story is a departure from Staples's previous books, offering a fictionalized account of a summer in Staples's own childhood when a dog adopted her family. The young girl is ecstatic. She has always wanted a dog, but her father forbade it. He finally relents and allows her to keep the dog, which she names Jeff, if she can keep him out of trouble. "What follows is a perfectly riotous summer with Jeff getting into laugh-aloud trouble at every turn," wrote School Library Journal contributor Barbara Scotto. Eventually, Suzanne's father sends the dog away to live on a farm, and this much-foreshadowed, bittersweet ending caused other reviewers to have a much different reaction to the book. Horn Book's Susan Dove Lempke thought that "overall the tone is anxious and sad," as Fisher writes about her memories of "loneliness and pain with visceral intensity." A Kirkus Reviews contributor fell between the two, writing that the "story is written with style, humor, and empathy."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 60, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Sutherland, Zena, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

PERIODICALS

ALAN Review, fall, 1999, Jinx Stapleton Watson, "Individual Choice and Family Loyality: Suzanne Fisher Staples' Protagonists Come of Age," pp. 25-28.

Booklist, June 1-15, 1993, Ilene Cooper, review of Haveli, p. 1813; March 15, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 1375; June 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, p. 1874; May 15, 2001, Lolly Gepson, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 1764; October 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, p. 322.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Haveli, pp. 73-74; October, 1996, p. 77.

Guardian (London, England), April 14, 1998, Philip Pullman, review of Storm, p. 5.

Horn Book, January-February, 1990, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Shabanu, p. 72; January-February, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Haveli, pp. 75-76; January-February, 1997, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Dangerous Skies, pp. 67-68; May, 2000, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 321; January, 2001, Kristi Beavin, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 125; September-October, 2003, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Green Dog, p. 620.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, May, 2000, JoAnn Thom, review of Dangerous Skies, pp. 779-780.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of The Green Dog, p. 1024.

Kliatt, January, 2002, Debra Mitts Smith, review of Shiva's Fire, pp. 13-14.

New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1989, Maurya Simon, review of Shabanu, p. 32; November 14, 1993, Daniyal Mueenuddin, review of Haveli, p. 59; July 16, 2000, Laura Shapiro, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, July 1, 1996, review of Dangerous Skies, p. 61; January 31, 2000, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 108; February 14, 2000, Lynda Brill, interview with Staples, p. 168; July 28, 2003, review of The Green Dog, p. 95.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 1, 1996, Evelyn C. White, review of Dangerous Skies, p. 8.

School Library Journal, August, 1993, pp. 189-190; October, 1996, Cindy Darling Codell, review of Dangerous Skies, pp. 149-150; January, 2001, JoAnn Carhart, review of Shiva's Fire, p. 75; September, 2003, Barbara Scotto, review of The Green Dog, pp. 221-222.

Times Educational Supplement, June 8, 1990, Ashok Bery, review of Daughter of the Wind, p. B13; September 9, 1994, Imogen Forster, review of Haveli, p. A20.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1990, Marijo Grimes, review of Shabanu, pp. 34-35; December, 1993, p. 302; December, 1996, p. 274.

ONLINE

Suzanne Fisher Staples Home Page, http://suzannefisherstaples.com/ (May 5, 2004).*

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