Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Sept., 2008)


Each of the eight chapters is a story unto itself, but they are all interconnected in telling the life of a middle-school English teacher. Bynum was a National Book Award finalist in 2004, and this book really showcases her talent. I found myself getting teary in places, but mostly laughing out loud unexpectedly, with a simple, acute description or turn of phrase. I found myself suddenly surprised, when Beatrice (Ms. Hempel) talked honestly about her idealism (or lack thereof) with regard to teaching, or divulged her sexual inclinations. As a former middle-school teacher myself, I was completely engrossed in Ms. Hempel’s experiences (and I suspect anyone in education would likewise be drawn in by this novel), and I originally thought to pass the book on to my middle-school daughter’s English teacher. That would, I realize now, be awkward – God knows if her English teacher would think I’m a freak for giving her a book whose main character is sometimes embarrassingly forthright. After all, we have stereotypes in our heads about the private lives our teachers lead. Many of us would like to maintain those illusions. So I won’t be giving this novel as a gift to any of my daughter’s teachers, for the sake of propriety. But I will hope that they discover this book somewhere along their journeys.  Bynum really gets the world of middle-school teaching.


About Cheryl McNeil
I am the User Services Librarian at the Orangeburg Library in Orangeburg, NY

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