Monday, September 08, 2008

Diamond Willow

I'm not a huge fan of free verse novels. When it's done well (Karen Hesse), they are extraordinary reads. When it's not done well (won't name names), they are awkward and pretentious.

I'm also not a fan of gimmicks within the story. If the text is printed in a weird text (especially if it looks handwritten), it's a turnoff. Too often, it detracts from the story.

So, when I opened up Diamond Willow and saw that:

1. It was written in free verse (not unsurprising for Helen Frost....The Braid is a good read, so check it out).

2. The outline of the text is in the shape of a diamond.

3. Several words on the page are boldfaced, and they form a secret message when read.

Oh! And.......

4. Animals within the story are actually reincarnations of the narrator's ancestors and twin sister, who died shortly after birth.

Let's just say I was a leeetle hesistant.

I'm usually resistant to talking animal stories (I love Charlotte's Web, Babe, and Poppy; I do not love Redwall). Somehow, I've managed to avoid Watership Down. I know it's a political and social allegory, but it's still a 400 page novel about a colony of rabbits. We all have our classics that we know we will never read. Some people will never read the unabridged version of Les Miserables (reading the abridged version is cool-you won't notice the missing passages about sewers). But I digress.

On the other hand, Blue Willow is set in Alaska. I love books set in Alaska. And it has sled dogs in the story. I love dog stories. And the main character is a native Alaskan. I love reading about other cultures, and I love books that are firmly entrenched within their city/state/country (like Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy in Maine and Ghost Girl in Virginia). I decided to give it a go.

Given that Blue Willow is a cornucopia of my biggest annoyances about literature, how did I feel once I turn the last page?

Privileged to have read such a fine story, but not 100% sure if I loved the book. This is unusual. I usually have a definite feeling as to whether or not I liked/loved/am ambivalent/dislike the book (unless I am reviewing the book for School Library Journal, I usually don't finish a book I am clearly disliking or am neutral toward). I can also usually start on the next book fairly quickly.

Not so with Diamond Willow. This book is so unique that it forces you to linger over it and thoughtfully consider it. Willow is 12 years old, and is somewhat of an outsider, save for a few friends. She adores her family's sled dogs and is devastated when their best dog is injured when she takes the dogs out for a run. During the dog's recovery, Willow discovers much about her family and her strength.

Alternating in the role of narrator are reincarnated spirits of Willow's ancestors, including her twin sister, who died shortly after their births. I have to be honest; I was a little weirded out when Willow's twin began narrating (and found out in which animal her sister had been reincarnated). However, it's done in such a moving and gentle way that any resistance to this plot change is quickly broken.

The diamond shapes are a little distracting, but become less so once you are involved with the story. The hidden messages are not gimmicky at all; when you read them, you read Willow's innermost thoughts and feelings. Again, it's a little distracting, but you get over it. I found it helpful to read the hidden message first, then read the page. When I began the novel, I wrote down the first few hidden messages, thinking that they would connect to one final puzzle. However, it's not necessary at all.

Diamond Willow is not a book that will appeal to a broad audience; for those that enjoy quiet and thoughtful reads, it will be a memorable experience.

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