Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin, 263 pp, RL 4
Fleabrain Loves Franny is the newest book by a favorite of mine, Joanne Rocklin, with fantastic cover art by Kelly Murphy. Fleabrain Loves Franny begins in 1952 when three life changing things happen to ten-year-old Franny Katzenback: she contracts polio and she reads and is enamored with the new book by E.B.White, Charlotte's Web, given to her in the hospital by Sister Ed, an enthusiastic volunteer who, "read books out loud like nobody's business." Franny lives in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where the famous Dr. Jonas Salk lives with his family. Her neighbor, Professor Doctor Gutman, even works in Dr. Salk's lab. Rocklin brings this time and place to life vividly, from the everyday things like collecting bottle caps and buckeyes and a gang of kids headed off to play a game of baseball to a fear of contracting polio so intense that you would wear a bag of garlic around your neck and give up a rare bottle cap find because a person with polio touched it. The isolation and ostracization Franny experiences is compounded by the presence of Nurse Olivegarten, a sort of physical therapist who has had success using a quasi-brutal form of physical therapy to help polio victims regain uses of their legs, usually while laid out flat on a towel-covered kitchen table. Then, there is her school's refusal to allow Franny to return because "the presence of a wheelchair and other accoutrements of Francine's handicap would be a distraction to the other students, a hardship for your daughter, and a liability for the school." As Rocklin writes in her superb Author's Note, "young polio victims, especially, felt small in their illness, suddenly overwhelmed by a situation in which everyone seemed to know what was best for them, but no one could really help."
The third life changing event that happens to Franny in 1952 is her friendship with Fleabrain, a flea who has a remarkable intellect and a passion for reading and digesting the "plethora of books in the Katzenback bookshelves" and the desire to share his "thoughts about books and culture" with a kindred spirit. Living on the tail of Alf, the family dog, Fleabrain comes to believe that Franny is this person because they have so many things in common - both attached to the same dog, both of their names begin with F, both felt small. Emphasis: felt, both felt invisible: Emphaisis: felt, both were lonely, both had feelings about Charlotte (although Fleabrain was "bitterly jealous of Franny's adoration of that storybook arachnid. Certainly not proud of that, he had to admit.") Fleabrain always notes the birth and death dates of a historical figure he mentions and is a bit of an intellectual showoff, telling Franny that Kafka's Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis, which he read in the original German) is "terribly overrated." The two communicate through notes left in Franny's diary (which she soon comes to realize use Alf's blood for ink) and find a way to see each other with the aid of a bottle cap from Sparky's Finest, which has a clear glass center that works as a monocle-magnifying-glass.
When Franny's heart is hurting most with loneliness, Fleabrain devises a way (that involves flea spit) for them to have adventures in the middle of the night with the help of Alf and Lightning, a horse with a history stabled in Frick Park. The odd group flies over the darkened city doing good deeds like stopping robberies, saving Christmas gifts from a house fire, and delivering turkeys to homeless shelters and also embarks upon a journey to visit the Seven Wonders of the world. However, the day comes when Fleabrain's ego and jealousy get the better of him and he hurts Franny's feelings. With help from a surprising organization, he comes to realize that he needs to let Franny go and live in her own world. Rather than telling her that he loves her, Fleabrain turns Franny toward her Zadie Ben, someone Fleabrain long ago recognized as a human who knew the "Truth of the Universe." With inspiration from Fleabrain and Zadie Ben's story about "broken vessels" illustrating the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, Franny finds a way to move forward despite the struggles and prejudice that she faces. And Fleabrain finds a surprising new friend...
The idea of a work of historical fiction about a child suffering from polio in the days just before Dr. Salk perfected the vaccine combined with the story of an "erudite, lovesick flea" might seem jarring for some. To me, in Fleabrain Loves Franny, Rocklin written a novel that exemplifies all that is possible and wonderful in children's literature. In her author's note, Rocklin says that she "wanted to write about someone who is able to find great solace in books, good people, the delights of the imagination, and the power of her own voice. That's Franny, and, if we are all as fortunate as she is, that's all of us." While it's certainly possible to write adult novels that feature these aspects of self-discovery, there is something special about capturing these experiences in a work of children's literature, these first, meaningful moments of understanding and awareness, as when Zadie Ben tells Franny to know that it's "the world that needs to be repaired, not you, feygeleh. So leave your bedroom and help us fix it," that are so powerful and free of the weariness and cynicism that can grow on us like grey hairs. Fleabrain Loves Franny is the kind of book that, when read by the right reader, will inspire a fervor and excitement that opens doors and windows, just like Charlotte's Web did for Franny.
Other books by Joanne Rocklin:
Source: Review Copy