Sunday, February 24, 2008

Polly Horvath

The Canning Season
by Polly Horvath
Recommended Age: 14+

This book won the 2003 National Book Award (U.S.) in the young readers’ category. Reading it is a moving experience, packed with fun and thought-provoking stories within a larger, equally strong story. Looking back over a long life together in the lonely Maine woods, the non-identical twin Menuto sisters are suddenly forced to think about the future – though they may live to see little of it – when a teenage girl-relative named Ratchet comes to stay with them for the summer. Then a totally different girl named Harper also drops in to stay. As the summer goes by, a strange sort of family structure develops between these very different people, bound together by compassion, pain, and the exhausting labors of the blueberry-canning season.

Each girl has been essentially abandoned by the selfish mother-figure in her life. Such a painful experience may seem like an odd background for a children’s book, but it is relevant to what a lot of kids experience in the real world. And in the memories shared by the old ladies – themselves complete opposites, yet devoted to each other – you see more of the same mix of outrageous fun and hard, cold reality.

Indeed, it’s not easy to recommend this as a children’s book, because it veers into gruesome imagery and adult language. But these days, many children’s lives might not be deemed suitable for young readers. And this book seems to gather in all the possibilities of a girl’s life – from young girl to old girl – in the bear-infested northern woods where there are too many loggers, not enough doctors, phone lines that can take incoming calls but can’t call out; and where the only connection to the outside world may be a car that no one quite knows how to drive. It does all this without sickening sentimentality, but in a convincing way that leaves you hopeful at the end.

Everything on a Waffle
by Polly Horvath
Recommended Age: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book takes place in a small town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For those of you who have not yet passed high school geography, that’s in Southwestern Canada. Like Horvath’s other books, it cleverly gathers up a small worldful of stories set in a small, northern, coastal town and wraps them up inside a single, touching story.

The little stories inside the big story are, as one might say, a mixed bag. Some are meant to make you laugh aloud. Some of them leave you stunned and saddened. The tone for this unusual mixture is set early on when Primrose’s father, a fisherman, is lost at sea during a storm; and when her mother, perhaps foolishly, goes out looking for him and doesn’t come back either. Everyone makes up their mind that Primrose is an orphan, except Primrose, who refuses to give up believing that her parents are still alive and will eventually come back for her. For this conviction, Primrose is taunted on the school playground and persecuted by her school guidance counselor. To her uncle (who settles down to take care of her), to the crusty old babysitter, and to the short order cook who serves everything on a waffle, Primrose keeps putting the question that forms the backbone of this book: Didn’t you ever believe in anything even when there was no evidence for it?

Is she in denial? Or is there something about Primrose’s fierce faith that could be inspiring? You read it and decide!

The characters surrounding Primrose are zany. Their life stories, mixed up with hers, are a disconcerting blend of sheer fun and awful pain. Somehow, the kind of small town where nothing ever seems to happen (as many see it) becomes a whole world loaded with magical possibilities, including astounding coincidences, creepy hauntings, goofy high-jinks, deadly tragedies, beginnings, endings, new beginnings, and unexpected changes. It has lost digits, the ups and downs of the real estate market, injustices committed by well-meaning bureaucrats, and unrelated people who somehow become a family.

None of these things may be what you would expect behind a front cover like the one on this book; but once you open it you won’t want to close it until you get to the back cover.

The Trolls
by Polly Horvath
Recommended Age: 12+

Melissa, Amanda, and their little brother Pee Wee live in Ohio. When the baby-sitter comes down with bubonic plague just before a planned, parents-only trip, the only person available to look after them is their big, strange, mannish aunt from British Columbia. As far as the three children are concerned, it might as well be a different planet. Their Dad didn’t want Aunt Sally to come down and spend time with his kids, and he has never told his family much about his boyhood on Vancouver Island. So now that Sally has the children to herself for a week, they have a lot of catching up to do.

Sally catches them up with a series of compelling and memorable stories – reminiscences of growing up in a large family in a small, woodsy, coastal community in Canada. Some of the stories are outrageously funny. Some of them are seriously spooky. Some are shockingly sad. And at the end you finally understand the bitterness that separates Sally from her brother, the children’s father.

The children themselves are drawn in a few brush-strokes, yet very clearly and tenderly as well. Without apologizing for what must be the great regret of her life, Sally slowly and (you sense) reluctantly pours out the story. And though she doesn’t come out and say it, you feel that she is doing this to teach a lesson to the children about sticking together as a family, and not letting what happened to her siblings happen to them.

Like many of Horvath’s books, the main story in this book is essentially a cabinet for the display of the many curious stories within. Yet it is a story whose beginning, middle, and end are all in the right proportions, and will all stick with you for a good long while. The recipient of several honors, The Trolls is a surprising story given that, in spite of its title, it never shows you any actual trolls. What it does show is the lady next door who murdered her dog, and the freeloading uncle, and the grief-stricken aunt, and the pinball-wizard Mom, and the way some children are privileged to have a truly gifted story teller open up to them, and the way one bad decision can rip a family apart forever. Just try to stop reading it. Just try to forget it when you’re done. Just try.

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