Fuse #8

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Review of the 48-Hour Book Challenge: The Braid

The first thing any children’s librarian asks themselves when they find a new verse novel ah-sittin’ on their desk is this: Did it have to be in verse? It’s a legitimate question. When verse novels first starting taking off they were trendy as all get out. They started winning awards left and right and were often mighty interesting little tidbits to boot. Kids who were reluctant readers could pick up something like, “Love That Dog”, by Sharon Creech and say they’d read an entire book on their own. But putting a book into verse format is a tricky business. Are you telling a story in such a way that verse is the ONLY method that works? Or are you, the author, too lazy to tell a story in any other fashion and you’re just breaking up your sentences into artful lines? Questions of this sort jogged willy-nilly through my brain as I eyed, “The Braid”. In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have questioned the author of “Keesha’s House”. Not only does the verse work in this book, but author Helen Frost has run concentric circles around anyone who dares doubt the format of the story. The poems in this book are literally braided into one another in a complicated scheme, while maintaining a riveting plot and a moment in history that I daresay has rarely found itself into the wide wide world of children’s literature. Stunning stuff, to say the least.

First things first. The Introduction to the book states that beginning in 1850, large groups of people were forcibly evicted from their homes on the Western Isles of Scotland. Some went overseas and started new lives in America and Canada. Others simply moved to other islands. This is important to remember. Now when Sarah and Jeannie learn that their family is about to sail away to Canada they have different reactions. Sarah at fifteen is the headstrong eldest girl in the family who finds the idea of leaving Scotland impossible. Jeannie, younger at fourteen and beautiful, accepts the move. The night before they are to leave, Jeannie and Sarah weave their hair together, cut it apart, and keep half of the braid each. Good thing they do because the day the boat is ready to take them all away, Sarah is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she moves with her grandmother to the island of Mingulay to start a new life of her own. Alternating between the narrative voices of the two girls, we experience each one’s sorrows and triumphs. From the death of their father and siblings to Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy, you’re rooting for these sisters all the way through. A scintillating portrait of not only the people who did leave their homes in the 1800s, but the ones who stayed behind as well.

I admit that the first thing that popped into my brain when I read the synopsis of this book was, “Nory Ryan’s Song”. Obviously they are vastly different. On the one hand you have the Irish Potato Famine and on the other the forcible eviction of the Scottish. Still... when it comes to the tales of those people who crossed to North America to escape their lives in Great Britain, there is more than one similarity to be found. Frost, however, does her darndest to make you forget any other immigration/emigration tale you’ve ever been told. Her characters are lively interesting people. They starve and fall in love and live and cry and die all within the context of two separate voices. Kids reading this book will learn the tragedy of being unable to read or write alongside a little history. But the real lure of this book? Frost’s poetry. Her amazing, frightening poetry.

As she mentions in her, “Notes On Form”, at the back of the book, “I invented a formal structure for this book, derived in part from my admiration of Celtic knots”. Invented? Wait. It gets better. The book has been separated into three different parts. You have the narrative poems that tell the tale, the praise poems that fall in between, and the, “line lengths based on syllabic counts”. The last line of each praise poem is “braided” into the first line of the next praise poem. The narrative poems are braided together when, “he last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words of each line in the following narrative poem, sometimes in a slightly different form”. Still with me? It gets even better still. The narrative poems all contain syllables that reflect the age of the speaker. So at the beginning Jeannie is fourteen with fourteen lines in each of her poems. By the end the girls have aged and their poems’ syllables have gotten significantly longer. The doozy of it all is that with all this concentration on form and function and what have you, you’d swear the stories would sound stilted and jumpy. On the contrary they flow together so well you have no idea of Frost’s format until you read her note at the end of the book. Then you’ll find yourself flipping through the book for an additional twenty minutes as you confirm everything she’s already told you about her new poetic style. Crazy? Yes. Worth is? Oh yes.

But who’s the book for? Frost has always worked fairly clearly in the world of teen literature. And certainly, “The Braid” is about a pair of teenage sisters. But besides the teen pregnancy portion the book hasn’t any moments that would label it as exclusively teen. I suspect libraries everywhere will have a devil of a time trying to figure out where exactly to place, “The Braid” on their shelves. They’ll definitely put it somewhere. It’s worth having available to the public. But it does have the disadvantage of falling into that no-man’s-land of middle readership.

For the record, I’d like to offer Frances Foster Books a wag of my finger for not including ONE Celtic knot on their cover of this book. There are some pseudo-Celtic penstrokes and a rather remarkably dull image of Sarah being sailed across the sea to Mingulay, but how hard would it have been to put a single knot or (craziness!) braid on the cover? What they have now looks cheap and dull as dishwater (sorry Louise Brierley). This is definitely a shame when you consider what a great read the book is. Definitely a different take on the old people-flee-their-homelands titles out there. Worth reading and worth discovering. Even if you don’t care for verse novels.

On shelves October 3rd.


At 11:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review; I cannot wait to read this title. (I'm hoping I might be able to pick up an ARC at ALA.)


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