I’ve been reading a lot lately, at a rate of almost a book a day, which is probably not helping my summer research any, or the book I’m supposed to be writing. Then again, it is summer, and it’s not Tolstoy novels I’m gulping down daily.
Yesterday, I finished Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, which is most definitely a snow book. It’s also a modern fairy tale, a retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and it’s deeply rooted in Minneapolis, which I loved, because sometimes it’s nice to encounter a setting in a book that you don’t need to imagine because it already exists in your memory. From Linden Hills to the chain of lakes, it was all familiar and real to me. Even Joe Mauer, though goodness knows I don’t care about the Twins.
Even though the central story echoes “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs weaves in other fairy tales, especially those of Hans Christian Andersen, like “The Red Shoes” and “The Little Match Girl” (hmm, I suppose it’s not a coincidence the heroine’s name is Hazel Anderson?). Growing up, I had a Hans Christian Andersen collection, a big, old book with a worn spine and a drab cover and lovely illustrations. I think “The Snow Queen” was the very first story in that collection, and it was my favorite. I particularly remember the robber girl and her knife. There is no robber girl in Breadcrumbs.
In addition to the intermingling of fairy tales, there are references to the literary magical worlds that come alive for Hazel and her friend Jack. Hogwarts, Narnia, the planets in A Wrinkle in Time. I liked the strong conflation of the Snow Queen with the White Witch Jadis from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and was amused when, after Jack climbs into her white sleigh, she asks, “Would you like some Turkish delight?” and he says, “Huh?” and she says, “Just a little joke.” (But surely he got it, after a moment?)
The most thrilling moment, though, was when Hazel is reading a library book on the school bus:
“The girl in it was reading A Wrinkle in Time. She was best friends with a boy who lived in the apartment below. And then one day the boy stopped talking to her. Hazel closed the book.”
I thought, Aha! I know that book. It had to be When You Reach Me, the 2010 winner of the Newbery Medal. It was one of those gleeful Lemony Snicket I-caught-your-reference moments, but also, I was blown away by When You Reach Me, and there is a strong affinity between the two books.
I read another book set in Minnesota recently: Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian, who, like Anne Ursu, is a Minnesota author. Sex & Violence takes place on a fictional lake in a fictional county of Minnesota, so I didn’t recognize landmarks the same way I did in Breadcrumbs, but it still captured that atmosphere of being “up at the lake”. (Well, my family doesn’t have a lake cabin, so I don’t have tons of experience being “up at the lake,” but it felt right nonetheless.) Sex & Violence was a 2014 finalist for the Morris Award, which honors a debut YA novel. I’d heard lots of good things about it, so I plucked it right off the shelf when I spotted it at the library. It absolutely lived up to its reputation. And all I can say is I wish I knew of an island on a lake with an old mansion on it whose library and other rooms I could explore. That sounds fantastic.
I also read another 2014 Morris Award finalist, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters. It’s set in San Diego in 1918, against the backdrop of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. The strong-willed, scientifically-minded heroine arrives in southern California to stay with her aunt after her father is arrested for helping men avoid the draft in Portland, Oregon. There she finds herself hounded by a spiritualist photographer, the brutish brother of the boy she loves, who is in the trenches in France. I really enjoyed the historical details, in part because the setting of Sparkers, while fantastic, is modeled on this era, in terms of the level of technology. The book also illuminated for me the full impact of the flu and the level of panic it created. I knew the pandemic happened, but I didn’t realize that practically everyone was going around wearing gauze masks, that schools were closed, that people ate onions and carried around garlic in hopes of warding off the flu, that wagons of dead bodies rolled through the streets, and that people hung color-coded flags representing the dead from their houses. At least as depicted in the book, it was like the Black Death transported into the 20th century. This sense of impending doom brought on by a plague also made me reflect on Sparkers.
Even beyond the richly-rendered setting and the omnipresent fear of the flu, In the Shadow of Blackbirds impressed me. It was genuinely surprising: many of the characters had a complexity and ambiguity that made it impossible for me to predict the roles they would play in advance, and I never saw the identity of the ultimate villain coming. Maybe another reader would’ve guessed, but I didn’t. Also, the climax was truly horrifying and terrifying. Finally—and this might be spoilery so if you care about that sort of thing, maybe don’t read on—I have this rule that has generally served me well that says you never believe a character is really dead unless you see the body. The protagonist may think they’re dead, but if you don’t see the body, they’re probably not and will likely return before the end of the book. So, in this book, someone died, and there was even a funeral, but we never actually saw the body, so I was pretty convinced for a long time that he would turn up, safe and sound, by the end. Maybe the fact that he was appearing as a ghost to the protagonist should have tipped me off to his actually being dead, but I held out hope (and confidence in my rule) for quite a while. But no. He was really dead. He didn’t come back. And thus Cat Winters subverted my expectations, and I was pleased. Because I always feel vindicated when a purportedly dead character resurfaces, but it’s also a little disappointing to be able to see it coming from the beginning, so I appreciated being proven wrong.
So that’s what I’ve been reading. Next up is Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy.