Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

"Ms. Hempel Chronicles"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 22, 2008)

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Ms. Beatrice Hempel, a young, mild-mannered middle school teacher, believes she is terrible at her job. In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s deeply affecting book, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, she counts the many ways she comes up short every day: “She made easy plays at popularity: dismissing class a few minutes early on Friday afternoons; beginning each year by reading the Philip Larkin poem about how your parents fuck you up; pretending not to hear when the kids did cruel and accurate impressions of her colleagues.”

No matter. The kids love her—and not because she occasionally bribes them with miniature chocolate bars. Ms. Beatrice Hempel regularly challenges her kids to reach high, assigning them interesting, creative work. She is their first teacher who allows them a glimpse into the grown-up world. One of the most beautiful passages in the book shows the kids’ secret thrill at being allowed to read a regular novel (Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life). “The book’s cover was sleek and muted,” Shun-Lien Bynum writes, “no more shiny titles, endorsements from the American Library Association, oil paintings of teenagers squinting uncertainly into the distance.” Above all, Ms. Hempel believes the children are precious in their own right—wonderful, complex human beings—each one of them. One project that truly worries her? The end-of-term assessments. “It was a terrible responsibility: to render, in a recognizable way, something as ineffable as another human being, particularly a young one,” she thinks. That she lives out this principle in her every interaction with the kids, is what endears her to the children. After all, they are much wiser and more perceptive than they usually get credit for.

Ironically enough, it is the middle school setting that also makes Ms. Hempel realize that she, long ago, came to the end of her own childhood and that her career choice has been the last stop on a road that promised a number of other tantalizing possibilities. “That is what is marvelous about school, she realized: when you are in school, your talents are without number; and your promise is boundless. You ace a math test: you will one day work for NASA. The choir director asks you to sing a solo at the holiday concert: you are the next Mariah Carey. You score a goal, you win a poetry contest, you act in a play. And you are everything at once: actor, astronomer, gymnast, star,” Shun-Lien Bynum writes. “But at a certain point, you begin to feel your talents dropping away, like feathers from a molting bird. Cello lessons conflict with soccer practice. There aren’t enough spots on the debating team. Calculus remains elusive. Until one day you realize that you cannot think of a single thing you are wonderful at.”

A few years later, after suffering through a separation from her fiancé and the loss of her father, Ms. Hempel leaves school to go back to (graduate) school and tries to make a go of a different career. Yet her years of nurturing the children at an age “when they were most purely themselves” stay with her.

Many years down the road, she runs into one of her “kids,” Sophie, and Shun-Lien Bynum does this particular exchange brilliantly. Sophie asks Ms. Hempel if she can call her Beatrice now. “I always kind of thought we should call you that,” Sophie says. “You thought of me as a kid? Inexperienced maybe? Or just lacking authority” Beatrice Hempel asks of Sophie, worrying old insecurities back into existence. “No,” replies Sophie, “I guess I felt that way because we were close to you.”

If the premise of Ms. Hempel Chronicles promises to be a sappy story, rest assured that it is not. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum creates a warm, moving story about a woman still struggling to complete the transition from girlhood to adulthood, surprising herself that she made a lasting, positive impression on the people she loved the most. “In good, interesting writing, everything is complicated,” Beatrice Hempel tells her sister once, when coaching her on an essay. By that measure (and more), Ms. Hempel Chronicles is definitely very interesting and very, very good.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 22 reviews


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About the Author:

Sarah Shun-Lien BynumSarah Shun-Lien Bynum graduated from Brown University and Iowa's Writers' Workshop.

Her first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Kafka Prize. Her work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and The Best American Short Stories.

The recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and an NEA Fellowship, she teaches writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego.

She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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