Carolyn Reeder’s Shades of Grey makes me wish I were still teaching. Given how much I’m enjoying my retirement, that’s a powerful statement. What makes it so good? Glad you asked.
Reeder’s story centers on Will Page, a 12-year-old lad who is the sole survivor of his immediate family. The Civil War has claimed his parents, his sisters, and his brothers. Will learns that he’s now to live with his uncle, his aunt, and his younger cousin on a once prosperous farm that has been unsparingly hit by the Yankee army and renegade soldiers.
The war may be over officially, but there’s still a powerful battle going on in Will’s heart. To his way of thinking, there can be no good Yankees, nor can there be any bad Southerners. Except maybe for the uncle with whom he must now live, the man who refused to fight for the South.
Will’s dilemma becomes a moral coming of age story, one in which even a 10-year-old will understand. Is there a bigger picture than the one that’s before our immediate eyes? Can there be more to an issue than good/bad, black/white? And how does one reconcile one’s absolute certainty about how things should be with how things could be?
Will has much to learn. Some of his lessons involve his younger cousin, a girl who surprises him over and over again by breaking the stereotypes he’d expected. (Your middle school daughters will love this character.)
His lessons also include learning about dealing with bullies, and about the hands-on intelligence it takes to rebuild a farm when animals have been killed and machinery has been stolen.
It’s obvious to the adult reader that Will will conquer his dilemmas. But the inner conflicts Reeder lets us in on are rife with potential discussions. I’d love to ask a group of fifth to eighth graders how they think the bullies in the novel would have behaved if the setting were their school grounds. I’d ask them what they think of Will’s obstinate refusal to call his uncle by name. I’d ask them … well, if you’re used to talking about books with your YA reader, I know you’ll come up with a questions of your own. As for me, I’d love to hear about your kids’ responses.