In this fiction excerpt from Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, middle school student Harriet Reznik, aided by the magic of the stage, surprises her audience -- and her teacher, Ms. Hempel -- with her knowledge and confidence, using her moment in the spotlight to find her place in the sun.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles
By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Harcourt Publishing Company
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Harriet now took the stage. Her cape wafted behind her as she guided her little card table into the spotlight.
Harriet Reznik, precious artifact of another age! Her thick, swingy helmet of hair, the bangs that look as if they had been cut with the help of a ruler. Her clanging lunch box. Her indifference to television. Her adventure books, whose child heroes discovered buried treasure and tumbled down waterfalls and toppled tyrannical governments. Her stories of Christmases in Canada, the tangerine peels burning in the fireplace, the giant footprints she left in the field: an experiment with a pair of ancient snowshoes. Her cousin Wilfred, with whom she made trouble and renovated a tree house and took swimming lessons in a very cold lake. Her guinea pigs, her magic tricks. She filled Ms. Hempel with wonder.
Harriet shrugged back the satin folds of her cape and plucked from the front pocket of her jeans a coin, which she held up for the audience to see: "Here before you now is a quarter. A regular, normal quarter, twenty-five-cent quarter."
Ms. Hempel smiled; Harriet Reznik -- exuberant soul, mischief maker, jumper up and down -- did not like speaking in front of crowds. She kept her eyes fastened on the quarter; she spoke in the breathless, uninflected rush of small children reciting poetry. "Before your eyes, I will make this quarter disappear." She waved the coin mechanically above her head, as if spraying a room with insect repellent. "Disappear into thin air," she repeated, and gulped.
Her wrist flicked; her hand curled into itself; the cape shivered. Then, miraculously, the coin was gone. Blinking rapidly, Harriet held her palm out for the audience to examine: "Behold! No more quarter." She checked her hand as if she did not quite believe it herself, and for the first time she smiled. "No quarter!" She patted the air with her outstretched palm, and the audience clapped. A claque of girls in the front row shrilled.
"Now, watch closely." And Harriet Reznik tightened her fingers into a tube, pressing them against her eye like a telescope. "Empty?" She presented the spy hole for the audience to peer through. "Nothing in there?" She righted her fist, so that the telescope transformed back into her hand, gripping a fat bouquet of invisible flowers. With the unemployed hand she dipped into a fist, from which she extracted, in a single fluid gesture, a length of red silk. It floated in her fingers. "Magic," Harriet Reznik said.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Ms. Hempel Chronicles is her latest novel, published in September 2008.