Delighted to review French’s novel, Once Upon a Lie when it was released in 2016, I was eager to accept an invitation by W.O.W. to review his newest novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election.
In his page of acknowledgements, French credits his inspiration to write this book to the high school student activists of the Parkland, Florida, killings, adding: “history suggests that a democracy thrives when everyone speaks up about social issues and their own sense of wrong and right.”
Announcing his book in a recent blog, French states: “There are numerous benchmarks of achievement in high school, whether social, athletic, academic or personal growth. School is a busy, often overwhelming journey, and carving out one’s identity may include a mix of the above. What is often missing, however, is one’s political voice. For many, cynicism about politics starts at the dinner table, but for others so does the realization that no matter how bad things are in Washington, D.C. or your own community, one dismisses politics at his or her own peril.
Politics affects our lives in subtle, sometimes seemingly invisible ways; if we’re not paying attention, it’s our fault. The Parkland, Florida shootings sparked an awareness that one’s protest, combined with others, can lead to a movement, and a movement can lead to significant change. But the effort requires courage, time, and an understanding of history.
What I find most encouraging about this novel is that it may accomplish more to affect change in America than many of our political pundits.
Of the many praises French has already received prior to this book’s publication, Senator Tom Udall, stated that although it is categorized as a book for young adults, “French supplies valuable lessons for politicians of all ages.”
Author, Marc Talbert, wrote: “French weaves a frighteningly plausible tale of political and educational corruption and gives us a heroine worthy of exploring, uncovering, and confronting . . . This is a novel for anyone who honors idealism, and courage in the face of our country’s current political, economic, educational and moral challenges.”
I find both these statements to be true and, as any good author, French engages the reader by creating complex, fascinating characters who capture our attention and imagination from the very first page. To drive his narrative, he has each of them make choices, take risks, and meet the challenges in life that compel them to act or not act when faced with the possibility of creating social change in their world.
He crafts his characters with an artist’s brush–broad strokes where needed and fine lines no matter how minor or major a role the character plays. We know as much about each one as we need to know. We move with them throughout their days as the lead character, Brit, a shy, brilliant, high school senior is guided and challenged by her AP history teacher, Mr. Wilson. He plants seeds of wisdom all along the way and we are taken through her internal struggles – once she has decided to run for office—to figure out how she might follow Mr. Wilson’s teachings and defeat her opponent.
His three golden rules for running for office help her throughout:
1. Develop a thick skin, as thick as a hippo
2. Know opposition better than it knows you
3. Don’t beat yourself up when your campaign come off the rails at times. Setbacks are how you learn.
She tries to live by his philosophy, believing that “history is essential to study and that doubt and laziness are the enemies of history . . .the more you know, the less you’ll be fooled by bigotry, conspiracy theories and shoddy research.”
I don’t know how French spins his magic, but it seems to me as though he channels all the dialogue–specifically Brit’s–making whatever she thinks and says seem both natural and spontaneous reactions to experiences requiring careful but quick thinking, coming from a richly woven knowledge of world history and a mature understanding of her own sense of integrity.
Writing her speech for the graduating class, French describes what she does, and it is how I imagine he has crafted this entire book: “At home,” he writes, “her fingers flew across her keyboard as she wrote: “The words jumped onto the page like acrobats, twisting and contorting into strong statements and fresh ideas.” That’s exactly how I believe French keeps us totally engaged in each character’s emotional growth and change. With Brit in the lead, he shares with the reader how our culture–including candidate culture–has changed and is continuing to change.
Where it had once been face-to-face communication when there were no smartphones or social media feeds and technology had not yet created new values, Brit tells us that “It’s all about living in the moment, showing off, being crude or cruel, and spreading gossip. The future comes in second place. And history gets third.” In the end, she reminds them that her opponent was heavily funded and as the underdog all that she had was “spontaneity, the courage to take risks, and integrity. . . .and she concludes that “this is ultimately a race between two very different points of view: giving up your independence to serve the interests of others or finding your own voice and making it heard. When you walk into a voting booth, ask yourself two questions: Can one person make a difference in this world? Is that person you?”
This is perhaps the loudest message of French’s novel: Addressing voter suppression and the knowledge that one person canmake a difference if he or she so devotes the time and energy to do so. Time and energy that often starts in the voting booth.
French is most assuredly committed to giving his readers hope for what affects us in 21stcentury America: the ever-growing chaos and demise of American values as dictated from up high in the political climate of our day.
He succeeds in showing us—through Brit’s discovering her voice and finding the determination to fight the corruption she discovers–how it is possible to fight it and win. But she does not do so without FACTS, without an in-depth knowledge of world history, that, indeed, has shown her how each person can make a difference. French then leaves us with hope that we may not have had before reading his book.
His closing paragraph reads: “She had so much more to learn, but she had already had a sense of what was real. The world was made of fire. Most battles worth fighting were ultimately waged in the trenches. That was the way the world had always been. . . She brushed away an aggressive bee from her face wondering, just possibly, if the world one day could end up being something better.”
About the Author
Michael R. French graduated from Stanford University where he was an English major, focusing on creative writing, and studied under Wallace Stegner. He received a Master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He later served in the United States Army before marrying Patricia Goodkind, an educator and entrepreneur, and starting a family.
In addition to publishing over twenty titles, including award-winning young adult fiction, adult fiction, biographies ad self-help books, he has written or co-written a half-dozen screenplays, including Intersection, which has won awards in over twenty film festivals. He has also had a long business career in real estate, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His passions include travel, collecting rare books, and hanging with friends and family. He describes his worst traits as impatience and saying “no” too quickly; his best are curiosity, taking risks, and learning from failure.
French’s work, which includes several best-sellers, has been warmly reviewed in the New York Times and been honored with a number of literary prizes.
Find Michael R. French Online