This article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, April 3rd
One of the most complicated and important writing concepts to explain is voice. It’s the way the writer reels a reader in. Voice might be suspenseful, or ironic, or doleful, it makes you want to keep reading. If you add audio voice to the written voice, the power of both grows. This became evident to me in recent reading-listening experiences.
I began with Kathi Appelt’s new book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, ages 8-12). It is a perfect read aloud because of its voice. Appelt has written lyrical but darker tales. Now her poetic tone appears in a romping adventure that believably blends fantasy and reality. The sense of place is evocative and the characters are engaging. All of these are beautifully bound together because of Appelt’s voice.
The main heroes are 12-year-old Chap Brayburn and two raccoon scouts, Bingo and J’miah, who are newly charged to track the happenings in the Sugar Man Swamp. Opposing them are two of the baddest wild feral hogs imaginable and a human villain who threatens to turn the swamp into an alligator wrestling theme park. In short alternating chapters we check in with all these characters as well as Sugar Man, a mythic figure who might save the day if only he can be found.
Too much? There’s more! Appelt adds one of the most inventive intrusive narrators who ever hinted, questioned and commented. The narrator chimes in, for example, on how pirates’ chanteys and lyrics are not related because “you know how it is when a song gets played over and over and over until you can’t get it out of your head … until you think you’re going to go bonkers?” I am frequently annoyed by this convention, but because of Appelt’s voice, I was amused.
Half-way through, I decided to shake it up by listening to “Sugar Man Swamp” read by Lyle Lovett (Simon and Schuster Audio, approximately six hours). At first I had to adjust. The voice on the page is so vivid, it took a bit to link into Lovett’s rather straight-forward narration. But I was hooked from the moment the DJ character signs off with “‘have a good day and a good idea … followed by his signature howl.”’ When Lovett howls I imagined it ringing through the swamp’s air waves as it echoed in my ears. Next I felt the menace of the Sugar Man’s familiar, Gertrude, the Crotalus horridus giganticus (CHG) who hisses “chichichichichi.” When I returned to text cued into Lovett’s most excellent sounds, I realized how often and well sound-making contributed to the story. I also saw how he plays up the emotions and the wit of Appelt’s words.
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (Brillance, 11 hours, 31 minutes). The narration has two voices, representing the alternating first-person chapters. The part of Victoria is read by Kathleen Gati. Her Middle Eastern accents convince listeners immediately that she is an Iraqi immigrant. Gati also makes clear Victoria’s loneliness, her sorrow at aging alone after her husband’s death, her longing and guilt about the child she gave up for adoption.
Kate Reinders reads the part of 14-year-old Lorca, a troubled girl who is so desperate for her mother’s love she cuts herself so that she can feel something. Reinders brings believability with youthful tones and Lorca’s sorrowful responses to her mother’s continual criticism, rejection and coldness.
It wasn’t just the individual voices, but their duet that pulled me into the roller coaster of emotions when Lorca, seeking a recipe that will please her chef mother, meets Victoria, a Middle Eastern chef. I believed the possibility of their familial connection because I’d been steeped in their individual pain and cared so much about both characters that I wanted this connection as badly as they did, as unlikely as it might be.
There is little action in this novel, it is heavily dependent on the characters. If I wasn’t clear on this before, I became so with Reinder’s few renditions of Joseph, Victoria’s dead husband. These startled and pulled me out of the story and I wished they’d hired a third narrator, a male performer, who would serve as a counterpoint to the female readers, reinforcing the voice that the author created on the page.