The first book I read by Joanne Rocklin was The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook, which became one of my favorite middle grade novels. It examines the power of stories, and that fine line between lies and illuminations, in the voice of one of the most charming whopper-tellers I’ve ever run across. You can read my review of that book here.
Rocklin’s new book, Fleabrain Loves Franny, is a very different novel. It’s the story of a young girl, Franny Katzenback, who is recovering from polio. It’s set in 1952, in a suburb of Pittsburg, where a sense of quiet optimism is surrounding the development of a vaccine. One of the men who works with Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburg, Professor Guttman, is Franny’s neighbor. But for Franny, the vaccine comes too late. Her dreams are of a cure for the neuromuscular damage that has left her unable to walk, a dream that will not be fulfilled.
Confined to the upstairs of her house, she endures the treatment of a mean nurse who tells her she can walk again if only she follows her exercises, ice packs and heat treatment. Meanwhile, Franny must adjust to life without the use of her legs. She is only happy when she’s immersed in the book Charlotte’s Web, which also came out in 1952. In wishing for an insect companion to cheer her and save her from feelings of helplessness and anger, she begins a fantastic relationship with a flea.
Fleabrain, a pompous and erudite flea, lives on the tail of Franny’s beloved dog. Franny is able to see him through the bottle cap of Sparky’s Finest Soda, which has a small magnifying glass imbedded in it – “so the about-to-drinker would have a magnified view of all the bubbles, like luminous marbles swimming up from the bottom of the bottle.”
Fleabrain tries to be luminous, and Franny is the light of his life. He’s multi-lingual, highly educated, super-strong, and often ridiculous. He’s jealous of Charlotte, even though she’s a fictional spider. In this book, all the lines between fiction, fantasy and reality are blurred. The simplicity of the setting for Charlotte’s web and its pastoral view of childhood is not replicated here. Fleabrain is as likely to irritate as to be helpful, but he’s a flea, after all. And Franny seems only to be able to imagine such a creature.
And this flea is a magic flea, so he leads Franny on adventures saving people from fires, visiting the Seven Wonders of the World and lighting Christmas tree stars. Franny is whisked away from the cruelties of her nurse and the even more painful interactions with her former friends.
None of her neighborhood friends will get close enough to her that she could touch them and infect them. They believe she’s contagious and wear bags of garlic around their neck to ward off her germs. Franny has to endure their patronizing and pity. While she’s grateful for a March of Dimes Walk to help fund the search for a vaccine, she feels awkward and unhinged by it all.
“Other kids were calling her name from across the street…People began to clap for her – Franny! Franny! Franny looked up and at her father and saw tears in his eyes. She didn’t want her father to cry. Franny understood a little better then how a poster child must feel, relieved to know that others understood the difficulty of it all. She was grateful to the newspapers and the March of Dimes for educating the public. But they were clapping for her as if she’d done something. All she’d done was get polio.
“’We miss you, Franny, ‘ called Teresa.
“But which Franny? Franny wanted to ask. Which Franny do you miss? Because, actually, I’ve been here all along. In the flesh.”
As her world becomes more complex, and she gets more control in her real life, her adventures with Fleabrain diminish. Though the interactions with Fleabrain make up a lot of the book, it feels like he’s a conduit for her to get her back to a healthy image of herself without his help, that is, without the help of fantasy. At first, no one understand Franny but Fleabrain, but as she grows, she outgrows her need for him. Even as Fleabrain’s prickly ways soften, she goes about fixing herself in ways that are brave and audacious but much bigger than the flea inspired fantasies she’d previously allowed herself.
Joanne Rocklin is a wonderful writer and her descriptions make even the most audacious events come alive. She’s added newspaper reports of a helper/angel that describe some of Franny and Fleabrain’s adventures, leaving the reader to ponder what is real and what is fantasy. This is a unique portrait of a complex girl in a complex time. You can see a book trailer about it here, and also a link to a PDF document of all the books, movies and cultural events that Fleabrain and Franny refer to. The book has a great “Author’s Note” describing the race to find a vaccine for polio.
These references make the book somewhat dense, and this might be better for a teenage reader or younger reader who’s quite bookish. It made me want to re-read not only Charlotte’s Web, but Kafka’s Metamorphosis. How many books can you say that about?
By the way, for a charming post about why E.B. White chose a spider for his heroine for Charlotte’s web, read this post on Brain Pickings, and altogether engaging and insightful blog:
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