Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016), by Rona Arato

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Sammy and the Headless Horseman (2016)

arato-headless-horseman“Jinkies, it’s Cousin Wilber!” or rather, “Oy vey, it’s Mr. Katzenblum!” Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a fun version of the standard Scooby Doo-like plot, wherein a disgruntled relative re-enacts the legend of the Headless Horseman in order to frighten the owners of a family inn into selling. Set in a Jewish immigrant community in the Catskill Mountains, the novel is more complex than the children’s cartoon, in that it touches on how prejudice exists on a number of levels: racial, cultural, financial. The strength of the story lies in the author’s exploration of the Jewish culture, which is presented in a way that non-Jewish readers can fully engage with.

Sammy, a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant, accompanies his Aunt Pearl and annoying cousin Joshua, and his cousin Leah (who plays little role in the novel) for their summer vacation at the Pine Grove Hotel. Aunt Pearl and Joshua condescendingly treat Sammy as little more than a servant; in fact, Aunt Pearl functionally offers Sammy as free labour at the inn. While his relatives have a “large, airy room” (10), Sammy is left to bunk with Adam, a summer employee. Sammy is actually pleased with this arrangement, as it permits him to mostly avoid Joshua, and to conspire with Adam and Shayna, daughter of the inn owners, in their “ghost hunting” (17).

A sense of the supernatural is established by Mrs. Leibman, inn-keeper, who believes her grandmother is haunting her. Her grandmother, Mrs. Leibman tells the children, always liked her brother best, and her ghost wants him to have the hotel. When things break and lights go out, Mrs. Leibman’s superstitions seem supported. Combined with the mysterious Headless Horseman’s harassment of The Hermit, a reclusive ex-slave who suffers discrimination at the hands of the less-educated of the community, the “hauntings” provide ample scope for a ghost-hunting adventure.

For the younger readers, the simple plot will still entertain, and the end may be satisfying: Sammy’s father comes and stands up for him against Aunt Pearl; the Headless Horseman is unmasked; and the Hermit returns to his reclusive existence. For those who have read more broadly, the plot will seem derivative and the end far too predictable.

Shatterproof (2016), by Jocelyn Shipley

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.2.

Shatterproof (2016)

shipley-shatterproofThe Orca Currents series aims to provide high-interest books with a simpler reading level to teens. The Currents books address issues as diverse as geo-caching (Kristin Butcher’s Caching In), archeological mysteries at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (John Wilson’s Bones), and normal teenage antics gone wrong (for example, Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act). Shatterproof falls into this last category.

When Nate moves with his paraplegic mother from North Vancouver to Vancouver Island, he feels like he has been sent to the edges of civilization, away from all that matters to him, including his best friend, “Lug.” Part of the move was explicitly to remove him from Lug’s negative influence, and teen readers will all understand Nate’s motivation in lying to his mother and taking the ferry back to the mainland “for one short day” (3). When two girls at the mall mistake Nate for a popular TV star, and Lug capitalizes on their mistake, Nate feels compelled to go along with the lies, despite his qualms. The situation spirals down from there. Lug’s growing dishonesty and lack of social conscience force Nate to stand up for what he knows to be right, strengthened by his attraction for Spring, one of the girls they have signed up for fake casting calls. Spring, however, is not inclined to forgive him. Nate sets out to set things right, first severing all ties with Lug and neutralizing Lug’s criminal intents; then scripting his confession to his mother and reaching out to Spring, hoping she will give him another chance. Through these honest attempts to make amends, he is given hope but no panacea: if he wants Spring’s friendship, or more, he will have to prove himself all over, starting from behind.

Sabriel (1995), by Garth Nix

When I first read Garth Nix’s Mister Monday (2003) and Grim Tuesday (2004), I was told that, really, I had to read Sabriel; it was his best. That was in 2004. It has taken me this long to pick it up.

I have to admit that the reason I read it now was because the digital version was on sale. Reading it on a Kobo only served to reaffirm two issues I have with digital texts—or rather, two components of one overarching issue: You can’t flip through the pages. 1) This meant in the case of Sabriel, that I couldn’t easily flip back to the page where we are told what each of the Abhorsen’s bells is named and what its power is and 2) when trying to review the novel, I couldn’t easily flip through the pages to glimpse words quickly and remind myself of the plot and the feelings elicited by particular passages. I have come to the conclusion that this “not able to flip pages” issue is beginning to far outweigh the convenience of not having to hold a large book, and of being able to read at night with the lights off.

But I endeavor to do credit to what is apparently one of the favourite fantasies of a number of my friends and children’s literature associates. And I did like it, really. But like the Keys to the Kingdom series, I did not read on…

 

Sabriel (1995)

nix-sabrielSabriel is a well-executed portal fantasy—a narrative in which characters can cross through a portal from a fantasy world into ours and back. The portals in these narratives can be physical or magical; the ability to move between worlds can be controlled through any number of mechanisms. A good portal fantasy, then, will contain an interesting fantasy world, with strong internal consistency; a portal that makes logical sense in terms of both construction and utility; and a representation of our world that integrates successfully with the fictional fantasy world the author has created. No easy feat, that. In both the Keys to the Kingdom series and Sabriel, Garth Nix does it well.

Sabriel is from the Old Kingdom, but sent into our world as a young girl for safe-keeping. This trope in portal fantasies is replicated in characters such as Harry Potter (1997+) and Tristran Thorn in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (2006), and in each, narrative expectations are met by the young protagonist’s importance in the fantasy world. In the Prologue to Sabriel, we are given a glimpse into the power of Abhorsen, whose “name was one of secrets, and unspoken fears,” to travel into the world of the dead and bring souls back into the world of the living. The child he brings back from the borders of death—his daughter and heir—is Sabriel.

The baby Sabriel is sent to Ancelstierre—a parallel to the reader’s world, with buses and ambulances, policemen and border soldiers, and Wyverley girls’ school—where she grows up, developing her magical abilities, but not really understanding them. So when Sabriel receives her father’s sword and bells through a “sending” from beyond the Gates of death, and she knows she must return to the Old Kingdom she has no idea how to proceed.

What follows is an archetypal quest narrative; what makes it interesting is the world that Nix has created, and the way that his magic functions. Incorporating notions of the afterlife from Greek mythology—the rivers of the underworld, nested levels of death, the bartering for passage—Nix creates his own complex mythology, a sign of strong fantasy narrative. As Sabriel travels through the Old Kingdom on her quest, it is not obvious to the reader where she will need to travel, nor whether she will actually succeed in her goals: another characteristic of a strong narrative. We learn about the Old Kingdom and Charter Magic organically, as Sabriel discovers her purpose and history. While some plot elements are predictable, given narrative expectations of the archetype, the minutiæ of Nix’s world is engaging. The seven bells that control the Abhorsen’s travels through the underworld; the obligations that come with the Abhorsen’s power; the confusion when those obligations are thrust, unexplained, upon a young girl raised in Ancelstierre: these are all handled with a forthright narrative style that carried readers through to the end—in my case in one sitting.

So why, then, did I not read the second novel in the series? The answer lies only partially in practicalities. I’m rather busy, but that would have been overcome except for two issues. The first is that Garth Nix doesn’t really write a very good romantic relationship. Sabriel and Touchstone are both richly envisioned characters; the intersection of their histories is carefully constructed, but the romantic aspect of their relationship feels shallow within the intricate world Nix has created.

“I love you,” he whispered. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Sabriel looked back at him, and smiled, almost despite herself. Her sadness … was still there, and her fears for the future—but seeing Touchstone staring apprehensively at her somehow gave her hope.

“I don’t mind,” she whispered back, leaning towards him. She frowned. “I think … I think I might love you too …”

That’s it. Except for the requisite sorrow at the end when at different points they each think the other has died. I’m not asking for sexually explicit scenes, but a little more emotion, perhaps, please?

The second issue I have is that the next volume is not about Sabriel. So: her relationship with Touchstone is not developed; the stories we can imagine of her role as Abhorsen are not told; the questions we have about her place within her world—raised through the narrative Nix gives us—are not answered. We are left unsatisfied. The other books in the series are stand-alone novels set in the Old Kingdom, not sequels to Sabriel. Anyone who reads my blog very often will now be raising the cry of “hypocrite!” but not entirely justly. I am really not fond of novels that demand that the reader picks up the next volume. In this case, though, Nix has written a wonderful novel that almost stands alone, but yet not quite. I do not feel like we have really explored Sabriel’s possibilities as a character; but even more than that, I do not feel the author has told us enough about what happens in her life. We are left with too little dénouement, too much uncertainty, a frustration in not being given a glimpse of what comes next.

The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), by Johann David Wyss

wyss-1stI read this book once. Only once. Ever. While it is (or at least was) a classic of European children’s literature, it has certainly not aged well. I cannot bring myself to read it again to review it, so what follows are my recollections from reading it oh-so-many years ago. This might be unfair, but the novel stands out for me as one of the great literary disappointments of my life. For the story of the Swiss Family Robinson—a family marooned on an island who MacGyver together a fabulous treetop home—is the stuff of magical imagination. It speaks to the heart of the child who built elaborate road systems for little cars, and dreamed of a toy train set, just for all those fabulous track junctions… Not so the novel as it was written. Or rather, as it was translated into English by William H.G. Kingston in 1879, which is the edition I read.

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Granted, the idea of racing on the back of an ostrich is appealing to the adventurous child, I think no modern reader—young or old—would be able to get past the Robinson family’s habit of killing an animal in order to determine what it is: “Oh, look, what an amazing, elegant, beautiful creature: let’s kill it.” And while the notion of building an elaborate treehouse from the ground up, so to speak, really does appeal to the engineer in all of us, the glory of bamboo-punk does not outweigh the boredom resulting from the stilted writing and the episodic narrative. But remember, this is a novel of its time and culture. The mechanical engineering that I admired so much is now a solid stereotype about Swiss and German cultures, and the penchant for killing animals just because they could was sadly common amongst European and British explorers—and imperialist conquerors—of the time. Remember the dodo? Or the herds of buffalo shot by men riding past on the railroad? Or the tiger, hunted almost to extinction? It is hard, with modern knowledge of how we have devastated the natural world, to engage completely with The Swiss Family Robinson.

So I no longer even have this novel on my shelf, but I will hold it forever in my mind as an example of the fact that, while literature can tell us so much about a time and place, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

(So popular was this story that there are numerous “in words of one syllable” editions and other such accessible versions.)

wyss-cover