Consider a complicated knot. Though it demands patience and determination, most could untie it without understanding at all how it was tied. Sometimes a knot is tied so tightly as to render it all but impossible to untangle, despite all patient effort. Sometimes a knot is barely so, the coils slipping away from each other at the slightest touch. As an interesting challenge, it is decidedly the complicated but possible knot that is most enjoyable. So, too, with "knotty" books. They demand a patience, a quiet determination, and the reward for that effort is great.
This description of a novel as "knotty" comes directly from author Alyson Hagy in discussing her most recent book Scribe. And it (like countless sentences in the book itself) is a perfect choice of words. Like the best puzzles, Scribe demands the reader pay attention, asks the reader to delay gratification, and encourages the reader with small revelations along the way.
Scribe opens fully in progress, and though some would describe it as being set in a dystopian future, a more apt description of its setting might be an alternative past. It has the hazy feeling of a dream just barely remembered (wait, did that really happen or did I dream it?), like the fuzzy edges of unclear memory. Just like in an uncanny dream sequence, the feeling you are left with is unmistakable and visceral.
The book is organized into several sections, with the theme of letters running through each section heading. The main character is never named, but she is the scribe of the title, and her role as letter-writer is vital both to her and to the community that surrounds her. This novel is about words, their power to enslave and absolve us, and about truth and tale-telling, myth and realism wrapped in one beautiful package.
Right about halfway through the book, the scribe confronts the man who holds the economic and political power in her community, and he offers her some trade, some "things you'll like, just to keep you honest." He is pompous, condescending, and greasy, but he is in control. The strength it takes to deny his offer is tremendous; the way she does it makes me want to stand up and cheer:
"I'm as honest as I want to be."
He wields a power over her; in fact, he does her harm with that power. But she, too, holds a power, equal to his own: She gets to decide how to tell the story.
So, what is this book about? It's about sisters and loss, it's about pain and rebirth, it's about being a strong woman in a world that only values male power, it's maybe even about hope and love in the midst of darkness. Alyson Hagy has tied the knot well. It is a thing to be admired, but it is also a thing to be untangled. Give the loose end a tug and see where it takes you. It is well worth your effort, reader.
For more about this amazing work and the author herself, see my interview with Alyson Hagy.
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Prayer. Why is this simple act so difficult to capture? Trying to conjure a depiction of prayer in contemporary media, you might hear the voice of Forrest Gump's poor Jenny:
Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away from here.
Or maybe you picture little Kevin (from Home Alone) or some other character in crisis ducking into a grand, ornate church, praying in uncertain desperation. These dramatized versions of prayer are rather easy to come by, but rarely do you find the small acts of everyday prayer, especially in books for young people. Why is that? Surely we know that regardless of culture or creed, many (if not most) of our young readers are growing up in households of faith. Surely we know they need their own stories.
In Angel Thieves, author Kathi Appelt has given prayer a page or two, has drawn characters who sometimes pray and sometimes don’t, who go to church or sometimes don’t, and the alchemy of it feels right and true. The first short chapter closes with the words:
Pray if the spirit moves you.”
So, be warned: there is prayer here. But if you feel tempted to relegate this book to a sub-genre of “Christian Fiction,” do please resist the temptation. Because Christianity is so mainstream in the United States, such a majority vote in a minority-rich culture, it feels more necessary to celebrate the regular lived-lives of people of other faiths in our literature. By no means should any of us reduce our efforts to read diversely; however, it is important to note that religious diversity includes that mainstream faith that has been overrepresented for all the countless seasons before this one. It includes Soleil Broussard and her church youth group. It includes the original members of the Mother River Church of God’s Blessings who served as a safe house for those fleeing slavery. And it includes Cade, who admits
The closest he had come to any sort of regular attendance of holy territory was prowling around in old graveyards, searching for statuary that could be loosened from its moorings and lifted into the back of his father’s pickup truck. (206)
Yes, Cade (and his father) are the angel thieves from the title. And he and all the rest of the characters are real and finely drawn.
In constructing this novel, Appelt has conjured a spirit - no, several spirits. As a Middle Grades standard, the multi-vocal novel (each chapter passes the narrative between the perspectives of individual characters) cannot be denied. At its worst, this technique can be a mundane simplification, a dumbing down of narrative complexities; however, Appelt’s expertise here is vivid and rare.
The narrative centers itself in Houston, TX and dances beautifully between a range of characters (to include a body of water and a wild animal) and historical settings (from the 1800s before Texas entered the United States to the present day). Throughout, the weaving interplay is as rich and fulfilling as a chef-prepared meal. And just like that amazing meal, what happens at the very end is unexpected and lovely and slightly sad and full of hope.
Years ago, Kathi Appelt gave us The Underneath, one of the finest novels for young people of our era. Now, she has given us another moving, thought-provoking story full of real people doing real things. It deserves your real attention. And yes, you can even pray if the spirit moves you.
PS: Come back later this month for an interview with Kathi Appelt!