‘Quaking’ Shakes up an Authentic Portrayal of a Struggling Teen

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Quaking, Kathryn Erskine’s story about 14-year old Matt who has been shuffled around from one family member to another and is finally sent to live with distant Quaker relatives touches on a number of serious themes, some more successfully than others.

Matilda, known as Matt, comes from a home where her father physically abused her and her mother. Matt has learned from an early age not to trust anyone or form attachments. The book does an excellent job of portraying how detrimental both physical and verbal abuse are to the development of a child. It follows this issue further into adulthood and our larger society to examine the power of words and violence on our culture.

Where the story falters is in following through on Matt’s family history. Where is Matt’s father and what are the consequences of his actions? Matt must have an opinion about him besides fear and that is never brought up in the book.

The plotline about Mr. Morehead aka Mr. Warhead, the pro-war world civilization teacher also seems simplistic and obvious. This character feels forced into the story as a way for the author to express her views against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of how one feels about this issue, it’s a heavy-handed, black and white way of examining a complicated event with far reaching implications. Perhaps Erskine presents the war and peace argument this way because Quaking is aimed at a teen audience but it does read like a by the numbers book report and comes across as preachy. I feel adolescents are capable of understanding more nuanced views of an issue.

Erskine does create a fully realized, three-dimensional character in Matt that teens can identify and empathize with even if they have not been in the same situation as Matt who has been abused and bullied. Every teen has at one point or another felt out of place and misunderstood and Matt’s character perfectly captures that feeling of wanting to disappear, “I make myself small and dark so that I look like a hole and there is nothing there.”

Quaking also looks at modern day Quakers, a religion most people probably don’t know much about. In this sense, the book is unique and gives readers an idea of Quaker philosophy and values

Here is a link on Flickr to modern day Quaker plain dressing or as I like to call it, clothing from the Gap.

Here is another link with what seems like a more traditional way of plain dressing.

Overall, Quaking is a book full of rich themes, language and a fully developed main character that provides much food for thought for young adults.

– YMK

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4 thoughts on “‘Quaking’ Shakes up an Authentic Portrayal of a Struggling Teen

  1. I agree with your assessment of this book, YMK. When I first read it, I found it difficult to like Matt, and the anti-war subplot struck me as flat and predictable. But I can see how teens would love Matt’s snarkiness and root for her to step forward even more than she does with Mr. Morehead.

    • I am with you too, YMK. In an effort to cover all relevant issues, it seems the author wedged alot of awkward material masquerading as plotlines to reinforce her perspective; this determination cost her the realism of a teacher character who might have had more contradictions, amongst other thin devices. Erskine’s many issues left too many threads hanging: what was the outcome or nature of the conversation between Mr. Warhead and Ms. Jimenez in the hall? Ms Jimenez reassures Matt, but nothing goes anywhere; the Rat, too, is a stand-in who is never developed, and simply reflects a stereotype (“the Bully”) to show Matt’s defensive stances. What happens to him, after his experience of being put down by Sam? A simple reversion to past behavior? Does his behavior really go unnoticed by teachers and other students? I prefer Crutcher’s integration of Sooner’s character in “Deadline”: while abusive, he showed other redeeming characteristics, and the way he died and his effect on his father held out some hope that his father would change as a result.
      I also wanted Erskine to give us one example of Matt’s “strong spirit” (standing up to someone; voicing an unpopular opinion; sharing her essays in class; posting something on a bulletin board) that was unprompted, so that when Sam tells Jessica he thinks Matt is stronger than others, he can point to more than her surviving abuse: this is a victim stereotype.
      I would be tempted, as a teacher, to have the class write one last chapter in Matt’s voice, like an epilogue, that gives a wrap-up of all these subplots: how does the violence against peace-makers get handled by the authorities; how is the Rat held accountable; how is Mr. Warhead given a chance to teach a more balanced curriculum; how does Rob follow through on the petition, and get Sam reinstated; how does Sam finds a resolution for his conscientious objection status so he can move on; how does Rory moves to the next stage in his development? Each of these dangling threads could be tied to Matt, and her new sense of belonging.This would help counterbalance the obviousness of some of the author’s agenda.
      BTW: This brings up a tough question: Is using YA to beat your favorite social issue a responsible way of proselityzing? Do we encourage this? And if so, how do we as educators respond? Are we responsible for teaching detection of textual biases? Don’t we seek to have our students develop their writing into clear arguments and evidence (or story and plot) as opposed to opinions and feelings?
      How do authors keep themselves accountable from agendas dominating? I know this is popular stance, with people able to buy books that present a clear ideological perspective dressed up as a story, but should we as educators be trying to work against this tendency?Isn’t writing that prosletyzes one viewpoint manipulating the reader for personal reasons rather than telling a story? Or am I being too tough?
      LD

      • There are a lot of interesting things here to comment on, but I wanted to weigh in on what was mentioned in the BTW in your post, LD.

        I don’t think that using YA to “beat your favorite social issue” is a “responsible way of proselytizing. The result is something closer to propaganda rather than literature. This book, Quaking, seemed to be dangerously close to propaganda. Overall, I don’t think this is a text I would select to teach; however, it’s a different issue if it’s part of a curriculum that a teacher may have no control over.

        If that’s the case, then I think that we, as educators, should teach students how to identify potential textual biases, yes. Students need to develop critical thinking skills when it comes to reading anything, and just because something is YA literature doesn’t mean we should give it a pass when it comes to looking for textual biases. Actually, with a text like this, the rather heavy-handed bias might make it that much easier to teach students how to pick up on textual bias in something they’re reading.

        I don’t think you’re being too tough, LD. I think that the questions you’re asking are the right ones when it comes to teaching.

        -CK

  2. I had serious problems with this book as well. To me it read as if Kathryn Erskine saw a picture of someone who was goth once, and decided, “Gee, I bet I know why she dresses ‘all weird’ like that.” Matt didn’t feel natural to me. Yes, there are kids who have multiple problems, but Quaking read as if Erskine never met any of them, and just wanted to show how awesome Quakers are. If I were trying to pick a novel for a student who was having problems expressing his/herself I would go with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, not this one.

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