Coming of age in tough times. International themes for teens

IF you read one young adult book this year, read The Honorable Prison, by Lyll Becerra de Jenkins (Dutton, New York, $14.95, 199 pp., ages 12 and up). Based on a short story that first appeared in The New Yorker, this stunning and brilliantly crafted novel reveals the impact of political repression in Latin America on one family. The story is told with vivid immediacy from the viewpoint of Marta Maldonado, a teen-ager whose journalist father is an outspoken critic of civil injustice.

Marta's world is cultivated and gracious, but fear permeates the air. The father of friends is assassinated on the street near Marta's convent school. Other critics of the government disappear. In one telling moment, Marta hesitates to walk arm in arm with her father, ``so that if they shoot him, it will not hit me.''

But ``it'' does hit Marta, her young brother, and mother when they are arrested with her father and imprisoned in a barren house at a rural military outpost. At first, life in this ``honorable prison'' is bearable though harsh.

In time, however, confinement, malnutrition, and reprisals against friends wear at the Maldonados' physical and spiritual resources. Rather than play up the book's dramatic moments, Jenkins uses quiet details - the way the mother darns a stocking, for instance - to convey monumental shifts within the family. Filtered through Marta's intelligent eyes, snippets of human contact with her guards and the local peasants become a moving portrait of a people torn by violence and fear.

As Marta endures uncertainty, terror, and near-starvation, the sheltered child who wanted only ``to be safe with my family'' becomes a survivalist who admits that, ``if my father dies today, Mama, Ricardo and I will go free.'' But when the ordeal is over, Marta knows that her father is un hombre indispensable, a rare person of conscience upon whom others depend for the preservation of justice.

According to Jenkins, her novel is ``a fusion of personal experience and invention.'' Jenkins, now a teacher of writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut, grew up in Colombia during la violencia. She describes her own father, the jurist and journalist Luis Becerra L'opez, as being ``obsessed with human rights, justice and telling the truth.'' When he openly criticized injustices under Gen. Rojas Pinilla's rule, L'opez and his family were subjected to reprisals, including imprisonment and exile.

Dedicated to ``the memory of my parents,'' Jenkins's novel is a candid testimony to the price of courage. It is also an honest and eloquent argument for idealism.

Not every teen-ager, of course, experiences political conflict so directly.

``It was September. We'd had a lovely summer holiday in spite of the air-raids and Dunkirk and everything and I seemed to be getting along better with people rather.'' Such disarming self-absorption could come only from the pen of 13-year-old Jessica Vye, the narrator of Jane Gardam's A Long Way From Verona (Macmillan, New york, $12.95, 190 pp., ages 12 and up).

Gardam has created a quirky, earnest individualist in Jessica, then set her loose to confront the ironies and absurdities of life in wartime England. As often as not, Jessica compounds the confusion.

``From the construction of your sentences I can tell that you are a lady,'' her headmistress observes, as she admonishes Jessica to behave like a gentlewoman.

Committed to honesty, Jessica, who is already in hot water, blurts out, ``I'm terribly sorry but I'm afraid ... I can't be a gentlewoman because my father doesn't believe in it. He's a member of the Labour Party.''

When it was first published in 1971, Gardam's wickedly funny novel received high praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Recently republished, it should win new fans, especially among older teens and adults who look back on pre-adolescence with honesty and affection.

Compared with the intelligence of Jenkins and the wit of Gardam, most writers would be hard pressed to appear more than adequate. Maureen Pople's The Other Side of the Family (Henry Holt, New York, $13.95, 165 pp., ages 10 and up) is a warmhearted novel set in Australia during World War II.

Kate has been sent from England to her maternal grandparents in Sidney for safekeeping. Just as she settles into their comfortable, stuffy world, the harbor is bombed and she is packed off to the interior to her ``other'' grandmother.

Misled by family stories of a rich, eccentric old lady, it takes Kate a while to see Grandmother Tucker as she really is - a proud, deaf, and independent woman who earns her living cleaning houses.

As Kate comes to respect this difficult woman, she must admit to the snobbery that has permeated her childhood, a snobbery that allows her father to abandon and ignore his embarrassing mother. In a somewhat contrived turn of the plot, Pople drives home her moral that wars, whether worldwide or within the family, can blind those involved to the humanity of the other side.

Carolyn Polese is a California Arts Council artist-in-residence. Her most recent children's novel is ``Promise Not to Tell'' (Human Sciences Press).

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