March 25, 2010


Northward to the Moon. By Polly Horvath. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

To Come and Go Like Magic. By Katie Pickard Fawcett. Knopf. $16.99.

     All trips that young teenagers take in books are voyages of self-discovery; these two novels for ages 10-13 are variations on that all-too-common theme. Polly Horvath’s Northward to the Moon is a companion to My One Hundred Adventures, which first introduced 13-year-old Jane’s free-roaming, free-spirited family. The new book starts after Jane and her family leave Massachusetts for stepfather Ned’s new job as a French teacher in Saskatchewan – a job he quickly loses when it turns out he knows no French. The irresponsibility of the whole trip is no issue at all, even though it displaces Jane; her younger sister, Maya; and little brothers Max and Herschel. The reason is the take-life-as-it-comes attitude of both Ned and Jane’s poet mother. Teens who dream of just taking off for somewhere (in a supportive environment) will enjoy the family’s trek to a Native American reservation, through Las Vegas, and then to Ned’s mother’s horse ranch – which has its own set of eccentric-but-endearing characters. Teens who are grounded in the real world may find the endless parade of off-kilter people and attitudes a bit much to take. But there is plenty of homespun delight here, for those who do not find Horvath’s prose cloying: “‘OH LORDY!’ says Dorothy, and leaves the skillet where she has been turning bacon. Her apron is already scatter-shot with grease but she throws her arms around my mother anyway.” Or: “‘Now, wait one cotton-pickin’ minute,’ says Ned, and it degenerates into a lot of boring talk about who can and can’t do what and they look to be going at it all night so I sneak off the porch.” There are plenty of plots and subplots here to keep things interesting: three aunts with very different personalities; a mysterious money-filled bag; an attractive boy who cares for horses and on whom Jane develops a crush; Jane’s continuing curiosity about who her father is; and more. Ned eventually comments, “‘I’m telling you, I don’t know why anyone does anything. People do strange things.’” And that is about as good a summation of Northward to the Moon as there can be. It is an ensemble piece, multiply focused and rather scattered in plot, but for those who wanted more of Jane after Horvath’s previous book, it will be a heaping helping of enjoyment.

     To Come and Go Like Magic is also a series of connected vignettes involving quirky people. This first novel by Katie Pickard Fawcett centers on 12-year-old Chili Sue Mahoney and the small town of Mercy Hill, Kentucky, where her family lives in 1975 and has lived for generations. The town is beautiful, and Fawcett paints its simple pleasures with obvious affection, but it is also stifling, locked into old ways that place it out of touch with the rest of the world. Some people in Mercy Hill like that arrangement just fine, but Chili longs for more than the town has to offer – so she immediately becomes interested in the stories of seventh-grade substitute teacher Miss Matlock, who has traveled widely but now returned to the town. The book’s title comes from one of Miss Matlock’s stories, about monarch butterflies that migrate thousands of miles even though no one understands how they know when to go and when to return. The butterflies’ appearance seems like magic, and Chili wants to come and go like magic, too. But of course it turns out that butterfly magic is not so easy to emulate: there are secrets in Mercy Hill, and events going on beneath the surface that belie the town's placid exterior. The real pleasures of To Come and Go Like Magic are in the way its story is told – really, stories are told. Each short chapter starts with a few words and an ellipsis, such as In Line at the Piggly Wiggly…. and May Day Parade… and Friendship, Past Tense… The stories follow and relate to those few words. For instance, Chili Supper… is followed by: “The uproar at the fried-chicken supper is still hot in their heads. Everybody was talking about some story this Penelope Winter had put in a Pennsylvania newspaper about how she’d brought her homemade chili to a potluck supper in Mercy Hill and the hill people were amazed. It was the first time we’d ever tasted chili, she said, making it sound like we were as dumb as rocks.” The core of this episodic novel is eventually spoken by Miss Matlock, who tells Chili, “‘Home is always home. Some people leave, some stay, some come back. That’s how it works.’” And so Chili eventually realizes that even if she leaves, Mercy Hill will stay with her as her true home – a conclusion intended to be warm and reassuring, although some readers may find it a recipe for Chili’s mental, if not emotional, suffocation.

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