One of the things verse novels do best is bring the reader into the mind of the character. That ability renders difficult subjects like rape and abuse intimate and painful to read. In Blood, Water, Paint Joy McCullough writes about an Italian Renaissance painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. She assisted her father in his painting and by the time she was 17, was a noted artist. Her father sets her up to help Agostino Tassi, another artist and he rapes her. Artemisia is unable to bring charges against him herself – her father has to do it – even more horrifying, the reason why her father can bring charges is because Tassi stole something from him – his daughter’s virginity. Not because she was raped. McCullough’s book shows some of the ways women have been silenced or forced to endure torture to have their voices heard. Artesmisia undergoes the thumb screws in her trial to prove that she is telling the truth, actually making it even harder for her to paint.
McCullough’s use of white space guides the reader in and out of Artesmisia’s head and we inhabit her drive to empower herself. It’s a terrific novel.
A novel in verse, Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, tells the story of Billie Jo and her father during the Dust Bowl years in Oklahoma. An accident harms Billie Jo and kills her mother and unborn baby brother. Billie Jo has been becoming a musician. The piano is the one thing that brings her joy. But in the accident involving her mother, her hands are burnt and maimed. She can’t play any longer. With this, her desire to leave becomes even greater. The alienation of this father and daughter from each other is painful. In the poem, “The Empty Space,” Billie Jo writes: “I don’t know my father anymore./He sits across from me,/he looks like my father,/he chews like my father,/he brushes his dusty hair back/like my father,/but he is a stranger.” (76).
Paper Hearts, by Meg Wiviott, is a story of Holocaust survival told in verse from the perspectives of two teen girls – Fania and Zlatka – who were imprisoned at Austwitz. Told from both voices, Wiviott’s story is built around a true story of a paper heart created by Zlatka for Fania on her 18th birthday. Zlatka and their friends risked death and worse to create this small present in the middle of horrible chaos. Fania managed to keep it with her as they went on the Death Marches as the Soviets closed in on German forces in late 1945. The verse, the story, the line breaks, the everything is extraordinary.
Stephanie Hemphill has written several verse novels of historical fiction that include one of my favorites – a book about Sylvia Plath – Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath.
Hemphill’s book is a fictionalized verse biography of Sylvia Plath told in a multitude of voices. I say fictionalized in the sense that the verse takes us into the heads of various characters, which Hemphill suggests she can’t completely know but only surmise from research and letters and diaries. Sylvia’s voice is written by Hemphill in a series of poems that elevate some of Plath’s own most well-known poems.
For me, the most interesting voice to listen to was that of the author – as shared in the page notes that appear throughout the novel. They are there often to provide historical context but provide also Hemphill’s own feelings about the poems and about how Plath’s history has been portrayed. The space between the poem and her notes as well as the change in font suggest a different kind of storytelling and I felt as if I was drawn not just into Plath’s world but Hemphill’s world as a writer.
Hemphill’s other books include a book about Mary Shelly, Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. A book about glassblowing, Sisters of Glass. And a book about the Salem Witch Trials, Wicked Girls: Novel of the Salem Witch Trials.