Book: A Begonia for Miss Applebaum

A Begonia for Miss Applebaum
Paul Zindel
1989

This is the story of two teenagers and their teacher, Miss Applebaum, who is dying (presumably of cancer, but her disease is never actually named). The two teenagers, Henry and Zelda, are very different from each other, but very close friends. They take turns telling the story of their relationship with Miss Applebaum as she slowly dies. The story is quiet, with few major plot moments, but very powerful. There are so many facts packed into this book that it almost boggles the mind, and yet they never feel forced – it seems totally natural that Miss Applebaum would babble information at them in an attempt to teach them everything she can while she’s still got time.

The most interesting part of the book was Henry and Zelda’s musings on death. They explain their fears, thoughts and wishes in terms of dying. We learn that Henry believes that he will always be connected to everything else, but fears death by falling pianos and spectacular car crashes. Zelda is more afraid of death itself and less of the act of dying. The discussion of death is carried throughout the entire book, not always obviously there, but always just below the surface ready to peek out from time to time. It deals with death both concretely and philosophically and does an amazing job with both. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an adult book that deals with the subject near this well, and certainly never before found it in a children’s book!

The writing in the book is fantastic. Each narrator, Henry and Zelda, has their own distinct voice and way of telling the story. Henry is very methodical and records what happened when and exactly what he saw. He’s almost scientific in his way of telling the story, but never ever cold. His observations tend to focus on the big picture and rarely give details or more than cursory emotional impressions. Zelda is less linear and far more artistic in her descriptions. Her storytelling is full of emotion and imagery, but often less clear about what is actually happening. We know she’s upset, but not always sure why (and it seems that she isn’t sure why either sometimes). Her descriptions are amazing, though. They are poetic and so full of colour, detail and emotional reactions that you can’t help but sink into them! As different as the two narrative voices are, they work together brilliantly. They work with each other to tell the story beautifully and completely. It’s masterful.

The emotional impact of this book is strong, but it is also very thought-provoking. It made me think about death and about the way we think about death. It made me wonder what I would have done in Henry or Zelda’s place and fume at Miss Applebaum’s niece’s actions. It was emotional to read and made me wish that every story I read felt as real as this one. It was brilliant and I highly recommend it. It is sad, but it’s totally worth reading.

- Book Blog: First Impressions
- Book Blog: Descriptions
- Book Blog: Death
- Book Blog: Knowing
- Book Blog: Final Thoughts
- Buy it from Amazon

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