Author: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Title: Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Media type: Uncorrected proof
Release date: 8 September 2008
Reading period: 22 August 2008
Category: Adult contemporary literature
Upon finishing this book, I turned it over and reread the title. Ms. Hempel Chronicles can be construed in two different ways. On one hand we can take it as a noun: The chronicles of Ms. Hempelâ€™s life. On the other we can interpret it as an action: Ms. Hempels chronicles her life, and what she sees and thinks about what goes on around her. While I began the book with the assumption of the first title, during my reading experience my understanding slowly shifted to the latter interpretation. Each thing Ms. Hempel observes â€“ be it love, relationships between adults, the relationship between a teacher and a student, a pregnancy, affairs, a class exercise or module â€“ initiates some sort of connection to her own past, her aspirations, her uncertainty about her identity. The narrative does not make the mistake of bogging down in self-analysis; instead, the connections that Ms. Hempel makes are what draw the story along.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles is about a young elementary/middle school teacher at the beginning of her career. Ms. Hempel takes in school life going on around her, the interaction of the staff, the complex and yet very simple lives of her students, in a poetic way. The narrative constructs the sense of a young woman posing questions to herself about the world through which she moves without ever being clumsy or obvious. She muses about ways through which she can challenge her students and the establishment, wonders about how to nurture tomorrowâ€™s leaders, and makes friends with her students in a very natural way. Outside school, she considers her relationships with her fiancÃ©, her family, and her colleagues. Despite its subject, at no point does the narrative sink into saccharine or syrupy sentimentalism.
The protagonist is referred to as Ms. Hempel throughout the majority of the novel, even when the narration follows her and her observations. Only in the flashback sequences, in which the narrative recounts stories about her as a girl, or in scenes with her family is she referred to as Beatrice. This technique sets the reader in a formal relationship with the protagonist, allowing the author to create a sense of privilege when the reader is allowed to share Ms. Hempelâ€™s secret memories and yearnings. Identifying her mainly as Ms. Hempel also points to the importance and impact the character associates with her identity as a teacher and a public figure.
The final chapter of the book leaps over a decade into the future, making a sudden shift that is somewhat disconcerting. All the thematic elements are there, including the sense of connection to events experienced by Ms. Hempel in the previous chapters, but the displacement of time and characters seems to come without warning. This chance meeting with one of her past students, now a young woman, is the only time at which the protagonist shifts from being identified as Ms. Hempel to be identified as Beatrice (other than in flashback sequences to childhood memories or family scenes). The shift highlights one of Ms. Hempelâ€™s commitments: to making a difference in their lives, partially through being their friend.
I enjoyed the book. It was a pleasure to read: itâ€™s smoothly written, and the language flows comfortably. Ms. Hempelâ€™s thoughts and wonderings are presented with poetic imagery and yet feel natural. At 208 pages it was a quick and easy read, but the story is tightly crafted and well polished. Any longer and the narrative would lose its unity, or feel less structured. Nothing extraneous occurs or is included.
Many thanks to Mini Book Expo and Dan Wagstaff at Raincoast books, through whom I acquired a review copy of this book.