Review written by Jocelyn Koehler
How will we react when the worst happens? Will we curl up and despair? Or will we rise up and endure? The answer to that question lies at the heart of Hoffman’s deceptively slender novel Green Angel. Taking equal inspiration from traditional fairy tales and the September 11 attacks, Hoffman spins a story of loss, grief, and grace.
The setting is very much like our own world, but with hints of a deeper reality. Green is a sullen 15-year-old with one remarkable trait—a talent for gardening that borders on magic. She hears the needs of plants, she can speak to them and encourage them to grow, and soon she surpasses everyone she knows as an authority on all things green. Hoffman never quite tells us whether this is literal magic, or if this is all an elaborate metaphor for Green’s talents, and that’s the point. The whole book is metaphor and magic.
One day, following an argument, Green remains at home while her parents and sister head to the city to sell their crops. That is the day that a sudden and violent attack destroys the city, covering the earth with choking clouds and darkness for weeks. It also alters the pattern of life for all the survivors.
Green’s grief at the loss of her family begins acutely, coupled as it is with her own regrets at how she parted with them. However, she must also face the awful new world she lives in—blighted crops, looters, suspicious neighbors, and a hopeless future. Her choice is simple. She can give up, starve, and die. Or she can try to survive.
Green’s path back toward living follows that of a mythic warrior. She journeys through darkness, she meets animal companions, she encounters a witch and a robber band, she works magic. Hoffman’s true genius is in making this mythic journey believable, still anchored in the real world. Green is amazing not because she’s different from regular people, but because she isn’t. It’s possible to read this story as one without magic, and it still works.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Death & Grief
Death is a huge part of the story, but nearly all of it happens off the page (one exception, see below in “Good Girl/Bad Girl”). While Green definitely deals with her own grief about individual deaths, the larger catastrophe of the destroyed city affects everyone in the book. That said, the message of the book revolves around recovery, so there is actually just as much emphasis on life and the continuation of the life-cycle.
Does this really need a section? Only because tattoos become symbols of Green’s self-anger. Over the first half of the book, she covers her body in gothy tattoos of bats and black roses. Later, those same tattoos turn green (and presumably pretty) as Green’s psyche heals. But, still, the idea of a girl tattooing herself so as to become ugly and unrecognizable is something that some parents might want to have a conversation about.
Green Angel is an extremely chaste book. Green rescues and houses a young man in the second half of the book, but they never act like anything other than friends (there’s no romance at all). Among the group of “wild” teenagers, it’s implied that sex is happening, but it’s never explicitly stated. The character of Heather is shown to drink and “dance” and the euphemism is hard to avoid. But again, for younger readers, the subtext will probably remain sub.
Good Girl/Bad Girl
Green is a good girl. She keeps to herself, she helps her neighbors, she never steals, drinks, does drugs, or even kisses anyone. Despite her own self-loathing, it’s clear that she’s on a specific moral path. Heather is basically Green’s polar opposite, and (surprise!) she dies as a result of her lifestyle (which is, admittedly, the result of her failure to adapt to the new reality of the post-catastrophe world). I don’t want to suggest at all that Hoffman contrasted these characters for the purpose of killing off the bad girl. I don’t believe she would ever do that. The death of Heather mostly remains just my pet peeve, in that it’s a subtle reinforcement of the “bad things happen to bad girls” meme that still pervades American culture. Your mileage may vary.
Wow. I hope all the FYIs above don’t scare people away. Green Angel is truly a wonderful book for those who are ready for it. The book is aimed a little above the tween range, but since it’s so short, it will probably attract some tweens for that reason alone. I think slightly older tween readers will really get into it.
Green Angel by Alice Hoffman
Published in 2010 by Scholastic Press