Thursday, November 21, 2013

2014 Second Takes: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Maybe ten years ago, I checked a book out of the library at the University of Houston. It was a 1958 monograph called An Investigation of Gondal, and it was an attempt by scholar William Doremus Paden to reconstruct a fictional world created and played as a sort of game by Emily and Anne Brontë. Although the sisters were teenagers when they started developing that particular world, they continued to play their game with it well into adulthood, maybe even until they died. It's the setting of some of Emily's best poetry, and the sisters even produced a prose work called The Gondal Chronicles, though that piece was never published and is now lost.

Though no child reader would be likely to know of it, Gondal is very much like "The Game" that the main characters in Doll Bones play. At least the earliest stages of the Brontës' game involved toy soldiers (which The Game also includes, along with other dolls and figures), and, like the Brontës, Poppy, Zach, and Alice produce writing about their fictional setting -- though theirs is in the form of questions and answers.

And, to be honest, Doll Bones reminded me tonally of Emily Brontë, at least. Doll Bones shares with, say, Wuthering Heights a sense of uneasy genre placement -- is it a romance? a gothic horror story? an adventure tale? a coming of age novel? Both books also share a creeping dread of the death of dreams and the pointless expectations that so often accompany adulthood. How much of growing up is a natural process, and how much of it is nothing but a set of counterproductive societal expectations?

I'm not going to make the claim that Doll Bones is a stone cold masterpiece on the level of Wuthering Heights, of course. But it's one of the most interesting children's books I've read in a long while, one that I think will stay with me in a way that not all books, even very good books, do. I think it's highly distinguished in theme and plot, and that the setting of Rust Belt decay is also very well done. In her review, Rachael expressed some reservations about the characters and prose; I think I like both better than she does. The main characters, at least, seemed perfectly three-dimensional, if maybe not as brilliantly-realized as those in The Hidden Summer or P.S. Be Eleven, and if the prose doesn't hit the heights of The Real Boy or The Center of Everything, it does avoid getting in its own way, and features some lines of great beauty.

In a Newbery discussion, I'd probably put Doll Bones in the tier just below The Real Boy and The Center of Everything, in a tightly-bunched pack that also includes Zebra Forest and The Hidden Summer. It will take me a long, long time to forget Doll Bones, however, and it's a title I can see myself coming back to over and over in the years to come.

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