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Family, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers

THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B HAWKINS by Gail Shepherd

This one was a 4/5 star read for me. Lyndie is eleven years old in 1985, the daughter of a former war protester/activist and a Vietnam veteran. She is fascinated by (and quite knowledgeable about) American history–particularly the Civil War. She, her mother and father have just moved into her grandparents’ home. Lyndie doesn’t exactly understand why. She knows her father has lost his job and that neither of her parents are behaving the way they usually do but none of the adults around her will openly acknowledge that her father is struggling with severe PTSD and her mother has lapsed into a crippling depression.

Lyndie has recently become aware, through her study at the library, that the American history in her textbooks does not necessarily tell the complete story of past events:

Mrs. Dooley helped me get what she called primary sources for the papers I had to write–like letters and diaries and proclamations and so forth. I finally figured out that my schoolbook was propping up some very wobbly ideas. There were all these ugly, unspoken facts swimming around the murky bottom, under the glossy surface pages of our textbook.

This growing realization serves as an appropriate backdrop for Lyndie as she struggles to determine which parts of her own life–and those of her family–are built upon a very similar structure:

And then I started to wonder if everybody was telling these kind of wobbly, propping-up lies all the time, all around me.

Lyndie is a perfect representation of a child’s perspective on how to sort out the ideas of truth, loyalty, public image and mental health struggles and how that construction informs an individual’s behavior. Lyndie, like many children, is naturally forthright with her questions and opinions. She also has difficulty managing her temper, which often explodes in unacceptable and violent ways at school, resulting in many trips to the Principal’s office. Lyndie’s grandmother, Lady, is particularly concerned about public appearances. When the Principal has Lady come to school to discuss Lyndie’s behavior–and possible solutions–Lady is appalled to discover Lyndie has truthfully revealed some of the confusing behaviors both her parents are exhibiting. Lady immediately denies Lyndie’s assertions. She later angrily tells Lyndie very clearly that she is NOT to reveal to anyone outside the house what is happening with her family.

Lyndie, as most children would be, is confused and frustrated by Lady’s behavior and directives. She needs to talk to a trusted friend or adult about the upheaval in which she finds her once-happy family but has been given the clear message that to do so is to be disloyal to her parents, grandparents and family in general. When Lyndie finds herself in a position where she must choose between speaking the truth(which equals betrayal of her family) and telling a lie that will maintain her family’s public appearance but betray a friendship, Lyndie must make a pivotal decision.

Lyndie’s story is engaging, her character believable and her dilemma portrayed with absolute genuineness. I have a couple of small issues with the story: (1) this story is supposed to take place in the mid-1980s, but–as a teenager at that exact time–the topic of the Vietnam War was rarely mentioned, certainly not as forcefully cited by elementary and middle school children the way it is in Lyndie B; and (2) after such a realistic representation of her struggle, the conclusion felt contrived and improbable–particularly the character of Lady, given the convincing history she’s been given. I understand that perhaps in a small town the Vietnam War and its effect on daily life might be larger than it was for me in a large suburb of Minneapolis, MN–but the discrepancy between Lyndie’s experience of it and mine is so great it took away some of the believability of the story for me. I also understand why the conclusion manifested the way it did, given that the book is intended for middle grade readers, who require a satisfactory ending more than an absolutely realistic one for conflicts.

Having recently finished reading Tara Westover’s much-publicized memoir, Educated, I am struck by the foundational parallels between her story and Lyndie’s fictional one. Both explore the ‘truth’ in history and how to define our own personal truth when it is challenged by the ‘truths’ of other individuals. Reading Educated actually gave me a different perspective on Lyndie B. Being able to compare the two emphasized for me: (1) the much more satisfactory (for its target audience) resolution of the fictional, middle grade story; and (2) that having a book like The True History of Lyndie B Hawkins exist in the same space as Westover’s actual experiences provides both the facility and the permission for children in similar situations to acknowledge their own voices–Westover calls it “self-creating.”

The True History of Lyndie B Hawkins entwines the idea of historical truth with our own personal truths in an effective narrative.  It would definitely work as an independent reading choice or possibly as a read-aloud, given that it provides springboards for discussion about mental health, empathy and the forced relocation of Native American populations in the United States–specifically the Trail of Tears. I think the main reason it didn’t completely work for me is that my adult self got in the way of my experience with the story. The True History of Lyndie B Hawkins is a thoughtful and worthwhile read for middle grade students.

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