In “The Weight of Water” (Bloomsbury 2012), Sarah Crossan tells us only what we need to know in her spare verse. We can fill in the rest ourselves. She must think her readers are intelligent, which makes us feel good.
Kasienka and Mama come from Poland to Coventry, England in search of Tata (Kasienka’s father). Because Kasienka speaks English and her mother does not, Cassie (as she is called in school) must go from door to door in the town searching for her father. Her desperate mother insists that she endure this humiliating exercise every evening after school.
Mother and daughter live in one room, sleep on one bed together, in a crumbling building surrounded by “nasty” people. In her new school, the Queen Bee of seventh grade, Clair, bullies Kasienka mercilessly—simply because she’s the new girl. Kasienka doesn’t wear the right clothes or make up or carry the right backpack. Kasienka starts by playing this game, trying to live up to what is expected, but realizes it’s a no-win game. Why should she have to please this popular girl?
When Kasienka swims in the neighborhood pool, an eighth grade boy notices her, admires her, suggests she try out for the swim team. Her mother forbids this because Kasienka must spend her evenings looking for Tata.
In the poem “Prize Night Envy,” author Crossan has Kasienka viewing middle school from an eye-opening perspective— “It takes two hours to honor those smarter than us/And watch them parade across the polished stage/To receive award/after award.”
This is how Crossan/Kasienka shows the politics of bullying. “Clair…surrounded by a thick circle of girls…It is a dance for popularity…Knowing that tomorrow/Any one of them could be out.”
At home Mama and Kasienka befriend their next-door neighbor, Kanora, who had been a physician in Kenya, but here in Coventry he’s a janitor. He tells mother and daughter that there is honor in every job.
Kasienka does eventually find Tata and for a period of time, she keeps him to herself. When she does tell her mother, Mama is furious. And blames Kasienka for all the pain she feels.
In “Split” Kasienka describes how she is pleasing everyone but herself. “There are many Kasienkas now./ She has split into pieces and/Scattered herself about like fallen fruit/ Beneath a leafless tree./ One Kasienka is Mama’s girl…” She describes her muted self, with Tata she is moody, with her new boyfriend she is “shy eyed,” and with her nemesis Cassie, Kasienka “smells of cabbage and fear.”
Thank heavens for the swimming where she shoots forward through the water, free. And for William the eighth grader. Thank heavens for first love.
Patricia Hruby Powell’s book Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014) has been released to high acclaim. www.talesforallages.com