Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum) – Review

Ms. Hempel chroniclesMs. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction/short story collection
Publisher: Mariner Books, 2008
193 Pages
Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalist

Ms. Beatrice Hempel, teacher of seventh grade, is new — new to teaching, new to the school, newly engaged, and newly bereft of her devoted father. Overwhelmed by her newness, she struggles to figure out what is expected of her in life and at work. Is it acceptable to introduce swear words in the English curriculum, enlist students to write their own report cards, or bring up personal experiences while teaching a sex-education class?

Madeleine is sleepingI found this book in the sale section of Powell’s bookstore last week and immediately snatched it from the shelves with eager hands. I read and loved Bynum’s first novel, Madeleine is Sleeping, and hadn’t realized that Bynum had a second book out in stores already. I read it immediately, and was able to finish it in a couple of days.

I could readily identify with the character of Ms. Hempel. We’re the same age, starting anew in traditional educational careers, and still wary of each step we take and each word we utter to minors in our presence. Granted, my biggest fear is not being abducted by a van of crazed clowns.

Bynum has a very unique writing style. Its a mix of snarky, subtle, youthful, naive and insightful. Two chapters into the Ms. Hempel Chronicles and I knew I could not in any way compare it to Madeleine is Sleeping. The story, characters, setting are vastly different. The Ms. Hempel Chronicles is aptly named, as many of the chapters were published as short stories in various literary magazines before being compiled into this book. That makes for choppy transitions between chapters. It feels more like a series of vignettes than a linear account of Ms. Hempel’s time as a teacher. Overall, I think this is a great book for someone in their late 20’s, particularly new teachers of middle schoolers.

Find this book at your local library

Book 35 of 2011

2 responses to “Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum) – Review

  1. As a 20 year veteran middle school teacher I can answer all three questions: not before you have tenure if you want to keep you joy and probably not afterwards depending on your situation, just be very particular when you choose your battles, some swear words are not really worth fighting for; yes, good idea, but remember the ultimate responsibility for grades is yours; again not if you don’t have tenure and probably not afterwards if you want to stay in the field–best to keep your private life to yourself; you’ll need it, everything you tell your students will find its way to their parents ears. Everything, including many things you didn’t say.

    There’s almost a sub-genre of new teacher novels. There have been so many over the years. One could even argue back to Jane Eyre who spends part of the novel as a ‘first year teacher’. Best of luck with your own start as a teacher. I’ve yet to see a crazed clown in a van, myself.

  2. A lot of my friends are new teachers, so I thought of them while I read this book. I’m still in the shallow end of the librarian pool, so I can relate with most of the insecurities about interacting with kids.

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