"A table absorbs written thoughts
(slight indentations in its wood),
and holds within its sturdiness
echoes of the conversations
that go on around it: laughter,
mealtime chatter, words of comfort.
It's part of all the stories, like
the constant kettle on the stove."
Helen Frost is deserving of every amazing review she receives for her work. She is a highly skilled and accomplished storyteller; the fact that she tells her tales in tautly written verse is fascinating to me. I read her remarkable works before checking her notes on form, and am captivated by the characters she creates and the stories she shares with delighted fans. When I get to finally looking at how she so carefully writes that verse, I am in awe!
Of this story about two sisters, separated by circumstance in Scotland in the 1850s, she says:
"I invented a formal structure for this book, derived in part from my admiration of Celtic knots. The structure has three elements:
- Narrative poems, in two alternating voices.
- Praise poems, each of which praises something named in the narrative poems.
- Line lengths based on syllabic counts."
All are braided to each other. When you go back to look, you can see that she did exactly what she said she would! You have to read the explanation to believe it, and then read it again.
And I have not even really mentioned the power of the story! In her introduction, Helen Frost tells her readers about the many people who were forced to leave the lands they had rented in the Western Isles of Scotland. In the family depicted, the parents and four children went to Cape Breton to make a new life. Sarah is the oldest, independent and determined. She stays behind to live with her beloved grandmother on the island of Mingulay. Before the family leaves Jeannie and Sarah braid their hair together, cut it and each keep half of the braid. They are convinced this act will keep their bond strong.
Helen Frost weaves her tale between the two voices, in alternating narratives. In between, she adds the praise poems. The syllabic count for the narrative poems correspond to the age of the two girls, increasing the count as the girls grow older over the two years during which the story takes place.
It is heartbreaking and hopeful, keeping the reader fully engaged throughout the telling. And, as a reader, we want only what is best for each of them. The themes will resonant with a young adult audience...poverty, family, teen pregnancy, first love, death, hardship and hope.
How she did all that she set out to do concerning form, and still tell a convincing and powerful story is testament to talent and dedication to her work. Bravo!