Lying at the end of her life in the room where she was born in 1851, Georgina remembers what it was like to grow up on the Ohio Frontier. This one room has seen it all and we see the past through its walls. This is history through microcosm: slavery as represented by the runaway slave who helps Georgina's mother give birth in the room; changes in medicine are seen in the chloroform that kills her mother during another birth and the treatment of her two brothers through diptheria; the subsequent birth of her own child. Politics of the time are discussed in the room: the suffragette movement, the Fugitive Slave Law. Each scene in the borning room becomes a snapshot of history. The life that is exhibited and affirmed there goes on in spite of, not because of, the people appointed by themselves or by society to make life easier: the doctor's chloroform kills the patient; the forceful preacher is only a nuisance to the dying man who gains strength from his family and from the maple tree outside his window. There's a wonderful sense of the family's values and traditions as sustaining influences.
The story is also a wonderful source of writing techniques used flawlessly by a master. We begin with a flashback and the similes and metaphors used throughout the book are particularly apt: the bed in the borning holds the life "like a bird held in cupped hands". When she herself gives birth in the room, she feels herself reborn "slippery, changeable, shapeless as a river". The room symbolizes the life and its "turnings" but there are other symbols in the book as well. In each episode there is a strong image of hands reaching out to other hands.
Fleischman's skill in covering so vast a period of history in such few pages could be a topic for discussion after enjoying the book together. Students might be interested in comparing The Borning Room with Gary Paulsen's The Winter Room, not just because both books center around a room but because the writing of Paulsen and Fleischman is so very different and both books are full of lush images.
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In Times Past
by Carol Hurst and Rebecca Otis
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