Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs--Anne Ursu
September 2011 by Walden Pond Press
313 pages--Goodreads

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else. 

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbsis a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

This was an absolutely beautiful read.  The prose is stunning.  Several times throughout the book I had to stop reading so I could jot down a particularly good passage.  Ursu's narrative voice reminded me of The Tale of Despereaux with the narrator who steps in now and then to comment, verging on meta-fiction at times.  The book has a hint of nostalgia with many nods to other children's stories ranging from Harry Potter to Narnia.

It's a very different fairy tale adventure from what we normally get.  There's no big showdown with the witch.  It's as much a spiritual journey as it is a physical journey, with more inner demons to fight than physical foes.  Early on, Hazel wonders why anyone would choose to stay with the Snow Queen.  Her journey through the woods is an exploration of why she herself would stay.

The book deals with some surprisingly deep themes for a middle grade novel:  growing up and how relationships change in response, mental illness, divorce, separation, and how children process such issues.  I wish the book had gone a bit further into this, but it would have distracted from the plot.  It's just so rare to see a middle grad novel deal with depression at all, that I wanted to run with it.  Anyone have suggestions on a children's book that does go deeper?  

Ursu develops all her characters well, but young readers will connect especially with Hazel.  Her doubts, her fear, her ache to belong resonates with many adolescents.  I saw myself in her as I read.

I fell in love with the first half of the book, but I didn't enjoy the second half as much.  This is because I read the first half in one sitting and I read the second half in 10-15 minute sessions before bed.  This is a book that is meant to be read in one or two dedicated sittings.  By breaking the reading up into a bunch of short bits, I lost a lot of the book's magic.  The book depends on a quasi meta-fiction vibe, and that style of storytelling takes getting used to.  Breaking out of the book so often made it hard to get back into the swing of the narrative.

The resolution is a bit clipped.  I wanted to know how Hazel and Jack's relationship would turn out.  We end knowing their friendship will never be what it was before, but that is all we get.  I think Ursu's ending was deliberate; as with much of the book, she's not going to just give us the answer.  She leaves it open to interpretation, and I still can't decide if I liked that or not.

I had a teensy issue with the title.  With a name like Breadcrumbs, I expected a bigger tie-in to "Hansel and Gretel."  I came into the book knowing it was a retelling of "The Snow Queen," but still, I thought we might get a double retelling out of it.  I'm still looking for the significance of the title.

This has almost nothing to do with the plot, but I love the wolves.  Ever since reading Julie of the Wolves in middle school, I've had a thing for them.  They are beautiful, majestic creatures and I love seeing them woven into stories in a positive light.

I really liked the book.  It's a different sort of coming of age tale.  One that focuses on how how friendships change and sometimes break as children grow.  One that resists change.  One that sends the main character on a journey in which her main opponent is her own self doubt.  It is magical and real and honest.

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