A String in the Harp
by Nancy Bond
Recommended Age: 12+
What a difference a book cover can make. When I saw the cover of this book, I knew I had to take it home and read it immediately, and for three reasons. First, it had a Newbery Honor Book seal on it. Second, it had a $2.99 price tag. And third, it had a beautiful color cover illustration, showing a brother and sister standing on a rocky, windswept coast, the sister looking concerned while the brother holds a magical, glowing harp-key with a poignant look of unhappiness on his face. Really, it was the boy's unhappiness that clinched the deal.
When I got home, I immediately discovered that I already had a copy of the book on my shelf, but I hadn't read it. Why? Perhaps because the cover was different. It had a Newbery Honor Book seal, which was probably enough to get me to buy it (even at a price higher than $2.99), but the illustration was quite uninspiring. I knowingly risked buying a second copy because of the low price, and I made up my mind to read it ASAP because of the cover art. So much for the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover." If it weren't for the cover, I might not have read this book until months or years later.
How glad I am that I did read A String in the Harp, and sooner rather than later! It is a fine tale about an American family spending a year in Wales, beginning six months after the accidental death of the wife and mother. Fifteen-year-old Jen has stayed behind in Massachusetts to continue her high school education, but when she comes to visit Dad, baby sister Becky, and troubled middle child Peter at Christmas, she is shaken by what she finds. Life in a quaint Welsh coastal town seems at first unbearably lonely, strange, and uncomfortable. Plus, Jen feels helpless to stop her family being pulled apart by conflict between Peter and their father. Just when Jen wants to flee back to the safety of the world she knows, Becky begs her to stay where she is needed. Once she begins to consider this outrageous idea, a new world opens up to Jen.
Meanwhile, an old world is opening up to Peter. After bitterly resisting Wales and all things Welsh until he seems likely to do himself harm, Peter discovers an ancient, silver harp-key that begins showing him visions of a long-ago Wales. Through the eyes of a sixth-century bard named Taliesin, Peter glimpses a chapter of Welsh history that has passed into almost-forgotten legend, distorted by later ideas and preserved in a language spoken only in one tiny, rainswept country. Even though Jen worries rather than believes when she hears Peter's story, she joins him and a small group of Welsh friends in exploring the countryside, steep with sheep-dotted hills and steeped in ancient history, mystery, and a peculiar kind of magic. Gradually Peter figures out that the key chose him for a purpose, to complete some long-unfinished story that may never come to its end if a creepy curator from the national museum gets his way.
This is an unusual adventure in many ways. Much of it is an interior adventure, playing out in Peter's mind as the harp-key shows him its own history. The indoor parts are mainly the story of how a sojourn in a strange country helped heal the wounds that almost divided a family. The outdoor parts revel in revealing a country so small that you can see nearly all of it from a high hill, yet at the same time vast in the all-but-palpable layering of age upon age, of people millennia apart yet sharing the same home and culture. It makes me want to read The Mabinogion, the great book of Welsh legends, which I have had on my shelf for months if not years...and I shall read it soon, regardless of its unattractive cover!