The teacher grows along with her students in this lovely novel-in-stories.
Teachers, take note: You’ve got an articulate new advocate in novelist Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles is not only a warm-hearted novel-in-stories about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard – and important – the work of teaching is.
In her first novel, “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” a 2004 National Book Award finalist, Bynum uses an unorthodox sequence of short, shimmering prose poems to convey a sleeping adolescent’s at-times surreally mystical dreams and fantasies. “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” is more traditional in form – eight delicately linked stories about Beatrice Hempel – but no less impressive.
Bynum is fascinated and amused by outspoken, phony-resistant teenagers in the throes of self-definition. Through her title character, she demonstrates a genuine fondness – totally lacking in condescension – for adolescents.
Why? Because these kids are “at the age when they were most purely themselves ... not yet dulled by the ordinary act of survival, not yet practiced at dissembling.”
She admires much about them, including “the efficiency with which they arrived at the truth.” They can be insecure one minute and brashly confident the next, but they’re also bursting with nascent sexuality, cynicism, and potential.
Bynum deftly introduces several of Ms. Hempel’s students through her musings during a school talent show. She captures, for example, the subtle dynamic between teacher and pupil by describing Ms. Hempel’s edge-of-her-seat engagement with exuberant, mischievous Harriet Reznik’s magic act.
Jonathan Hamish, “the toughest, craziest kid in the eighth grade,” wouldn’t be caught dead at the talent show, but he’s on Ms. Hempel’s mind anyway. Jonathan “took two different medication three times a day” and acted out frequently – once throwing a blueberry bagel at another teacher – but he’s “wearied by” his own bad behavior.
Rather than resent this disruptive troublemaker, Ms. Hempel’s heart goes out to him – in part for the way “His heart went out to the characters in the books they read.”