The following review came about when I learned that a former student, Chloe Spinnanger, had a fabulous summer internship at a publisher reading Young Adult novels. Because Chloe had taken my The Canterbury Tales course in the spring, I thought her expertise made her perfect for reviewing a recent Canterbury appropriation, Kim Zarins’ Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon Pulse, 2016), which had just been released in paperback. A senior English major at Central Connecticut State University, Chloe didn’t hesitate a second, and her review is below.
The center of Kim Zarins’ first novel is a high-school pilgrimage to Washington D.C.
The story opens with “Just a General Prologue,” which serves as an introduction to the students of Southwark High. The trip takes place “Well into April.” Led by their teacher, Mr. Bailey, the teenagers must each tell a tale to pass the time on the bus. The prize for the best tale? A free A in Civics. Some of the tales are nonsensical, others are pipe dreams. But before long, they get increasingly personal. The title, Sometimes We Tell The Truth, encapsulates the core of the story. Some of the tales are purely fictional. Some use fictional tales to tell the truth about someone. Some use the truth as a preface to a fictional tale. While others simply tell the truth.
It isn’t difficult to connect these high-schoolers to their medieval counterparts. The cover and jacket give no hints to this novel being an appropriation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Instead, this connection is left for readers to figure out on their own. But anyone who has read The Canterbury Tales will find these millennial teenagers familiar. The story is narrated by Jeff, known in his school as a future famous writer. So when Mr. Bailey calls his name, Jeff feels the pressure to tell a good tale. But instead of fiction he ends up exposing something about himself to the whole bus. Jeff’s constant over-analyzing of every social situation makes him the perfect narrator for the tales. It also gives him the believable voice of an an insecure, cynical high-school senior with an AP vocabulary. The other characters are easily identified as well. In this appropriation, however, some of Chaucer’s most loathsome pilgrims, like the Miller (Rooster) or the Pardoner (Pard), are transformed into misunderstood, even likable teenagers. Pard is described as a “Pale, thin haired, high-voiced, tiny guy with extreme fashion sense.” His relationship to Jeff: “It’s complicated.” In Pard’s tale, three of his classmates murder each other for wealth. Is this story ringing any bells yet?
Zarins draws on the complexity of Chaucer’s pilgrims to build relationships between the characters in her story, yet these relationships are where her story differs from Chaucer’s original. One major difference between Zarins’ novel and Chaucer’s tales is the communication between characters. In Sometimes We Tell The Truth, interruptions are a constant: “But what do women want?” Reeve interjects during Alison’s tale. “‘Not you,’ Reiko quips, and everyone laughs.” Some tales are even given second endings by dissatisfied classmates. Another notable change Zarins’ makes is in the gender ratio. While Sometimes We Tell The Truth may have more female characters than Chaucer’s writing did, Zarins makes a point to draw more attention the the still-uneven gender ratio: “This name-drawing thing is a joke—We’ve had four men in a row. And now you want five? Lets have some women speaking here. Enough with mansplaining. It’s our turn.” While this book is aimed towards a YA audience, any fan of Chaucer would find it compelling. It is no surprise that Zarins is a professor of Medieval Literature at Sacramento State University in California.
On the surface, Sometimes We Tell the Truth is a coming of age novel, firmly grounded in the 21st century by a plethora of pop-culture references. But Zarins preserves all of the rivalry, sexuality and even the violence of Chaucer’s original tales. “Bard had the perfect view as Fist came up behind face and shoved a knife under Face’s rib cage. He had the perfect view of Face’s expression, turning from concerned to agonized and betrayed.” In some ways the modernization of Zarin’s teenagers makes Chaucer’s characters more relatable. The passage of time and change in language can alienate modern readers. Today, many readers might not flinch at the Wife of Bath’s young first marriage. However, it is shocking to read about Alison, as she announces to the class “No one loves sex more than I do, but even I’ve had some bumps along the road.” Before she tells her Arthurian romance, she prefaces it with the true story of losing her virginity to a college guy at the age of twelve. As young Jeff confronts the taboos of rape, gender identity, and death, Zarins affirms that these themes are just as prevalent today as they were in Chaucer’s time.
Chloe Spinnanger is a senior English major at Central Connecticut State University. She has interned at Elephant Rock Books, where she was the initial reader of Young Adult novels for the Helen Sheehan Book Prize. Currently, she is an intern at Mandel Vilar Press, where she works as assistant to the editor for the Press’s translations of Spanish-language and environmental authors from Latin America.
Published by: SIMON PULSE 2016
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