Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Contenders: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

"No matter how many theories you apply to it, life presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat."
          ~Roger Ebert


Ebert was talking there about the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, but he could just as well have been talking about Breadcrumbs. And if that isn't a moral that one expects from a children's book, it only adds to the power of a novel as hypnotic as a blizzard, as ominous as a dream, as fragmented as reality.

The plot is an extended reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," set partly in modern-day Minnesota, and partly in The Woods, one of the most unfriendly landscapes in the history of children's fantasy. Fifth-grader Hazel Anderson's best friend Jack is missing, and she takes it upon herself to find and rescue him, even in the face of mounting evidence that he may not want to be rescued after all.

The prose is masterfully poetic, evocatively descriptive, and desperately sad. Indeed, though I've read children's books in which sadder things happened, I'm not sure I've ever read one in which the tone was so consistently haunting, melancholic, and existentially troubled. Even the book's ending, the nominal conclusion of the heroic quest, refuses to bask in happiness or allow Hazel a moment of pure joy.

The book's received decidedly mixed reviews, which I think is related to the fact that it resists so many conventions of popular literature in general and children's fantasy in particular. Even the most frightening of the characters, the Snow Queen herself, hardly qualifies as a villain, and there's no Aslan or Gandalf to help guide Hazel on her quest either. Secondary characters flit through the book half-visibly, especially in the second part; we see the portions of their stories that intersect with Hazel's, but no more. The precise meaning of several of the book's most arresting images -- the wolves, the clock in the woods, the demon with the mirror -- remains maddeningly obscure. Even though various people, including Hazel at times, want the plot to be organized as a classic good vs. evil conflict, it steadfastly refuses to go that way.

We don't expect that from our fantasy novels, especially for children. We expect archetypes, black and white, plots that tie together all the loose ends at their conclusion. But isn't a lack of those more like the way life actually operates? Existence is painted in shades of gray. There are few true villains, and fewer heroes. People come and go from our lives, often with little explanation and with seemingly important questions unresolved. Even narrative itself is an illusion, a cloak we weave from broken threads to try and keep the cold of chaos away. What, under those circumstances, is more real: an epic battle of Good and Evil, or the attempts of a flawed but determined girl to save a fracturing friendship, with results that, even at the end of the story, aren't fully visible? As the Jens Lekman song goes, "What's broken can always be fixed; what's fixed will always be broken."

Strangely, given that it's a fantasy novel, I think many people would like this book more if it were less true. But I love it for its truthfulness, its gorgeous weariness, and its (successful) attempts to find beauty and meaning in things that are not only broken, but both being fixed and breaking more all the time. I gave it five stars on Goodreads, and it's my single favorite book of the past year. It may be too divisive to win the Newbery, but if I had a vote, it's the one I'd pick.

And that's my two cents.

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