Fuse #8

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Review of the Day: Grandfather's Dance

All right, class. Altogether now. How does one go about getting kids interested in historical fiction? Any ideas? I heard somebody mentioning starting the kids on that kind of thing early on. Very good! It's an easy enough task to read historical picture books to children before they can read on their own, certainly. Just load your bookshelves with some Patricia Polacco, some Patricia McKissack, and maybe a dash of Allan Say for good measure. The minute the children want to read their own books, however, you may find filling their historical fiction needs a bit trickier. If it isn't related to "The Time Warp Trio", parents often find their bookshelves sadly lacking in that whole early chapter book historical fiction genre. So what author exists to rescue you from this dire plight? Who else but Patricia MacLachlan, author of "Sarah, Plain and Tall"! The series that begin with this pleasantly slim novel has added yet another title to its mix. "Grandfather's Dance" follows the Witting family's adventures as everyone prepares for Anna, narrator of the first book, and her wedding.

Cassie is delighted. Her older sister Anna is getting married and everything in the home is far more exciting and unusual as a result. Usually Anna lives quietly with just her mother and father, her younger brother Jack, and their grandfather alongside the prairie. Now, however, three aunts are coming to stay, to say nothing of an uncle and a host of other relatives for the festivities. Alongside this large story comes the small tale of Jack's love for his grandfather and Cassie's love for the both of them. Grandfather knows that his time is coming soon, and when at last he dies Cassie must help Jack through his grief into acceptance. It will mean remembering the good things and accepting that sometimes people have to die. Fortunately for everyone, there are always our memories to help us cope.

For kids that may still be a bit too young for Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Louise Erdrich's "Birchbark House", MacLachlan's slim novels offer a tantalizing glimpse into another time and place without ever sacrificing keen writing or gripping storytelling in the interim. This is a rare and wonderful thing to find in any author, let alone one of early chapter books. "Grandfather's Dance" touches on new, slightly darker territory than its predecessors. For some children, this may be the first book they read that deals with a beloved relative's death. In this case, Grandfather's demise comes as only the slightest of shocks. MacLachlan knows how to ease a young reader into accepting this occurrence without sacrificing her story in the process.

Alongside the parallel storylines of Anna's wedding preparations and the relationship of Jack and his grandfather is a rather unique and interesting series of daydreams on Cassie's part. Early in the book the young girl comments that she didn't love anyone for marrying, except possibly the family dog. Then, spotted throughout the book, are small references to this marriage of girl and pup. "My husband dog licks my cheek and whispers, 'You have never been more beautiful. You're more beautiful than a pot roast'." This eventually culminates with a mock wedding between Cassie and her dog Nick, with her grandfather there to see it. As he himself points out, he may never make it to her real wedding, but he's happy to oversee this pretend one in the meantime. It's bizarre but oddly lovely and it adds weight to a narrative that could well have felt too insubstantial without it.

I know it's not this series's style, but I did find myself wishing that there had been small pencil drawings of some of the images in this book. Her aunt's flute. The wedding veil. The new car. Just little things that might have made the story that much more interesting and real. MacLachlan doesn't need illustrations, of course. Her writing stands up for itself. But sometimes it's nice for those kids who rely heavily on visual images to have something small to grasp onto.

Still, this quibble isn't even hardly worth mentioning. To tell it plain, the best way to describe "Grandfather's Dance" is to simply say, "Patricia MacLachlan has done it again", and to leave it at that. This is a more than worthy follow-up to the other books in the Witting series, and a delightful addition to any library or personal collection. Best of all, you needn't have read the previous books to get a lot out of this one. It would help, but it's certainly not a requirement. A wonderful tidy book.

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