October 10, 2013
(+++) FIRST ADVENTURES
Sky Jumpers. By Peggy Eddleman. Random House. $16.99.
Lara’s Gift. By Annemarie O’Brien. Knopf. $16.99.
Here are two adventures, one from the future and one from the past, by authors creating their first novels for preteens and young teenagers (what is called the “middle-grade” market). Sky Jumpers is the first of two books about a town filled with inventors, built in a bomb crater left after World War III has nearly destroyed everything and has brought a horrific disease called Shadel’s Sickness. Inventing being a rather cerebral activity, the town of White Rock is ill equipped to fend off encroaching bandits who are determined to steal the town’s priceless supply of an antibiotic called Ameiphus. Luckily, the townspeople are not all inventors: 12-year-old Hope is unskilled at creating things and is much more interested in a kind of futuristic cliff diving called sky jumping, which involves the thrill of leaping into a band of compressed air called the Bomb’s Breath that covers the bomb crater itself. So here, it would seem, we have a novel arguing that athletic prowess is better than intellectual endeavor – reinforcing a horrendous negative stereotype that leads us to pay professional athletes millions of dollars while relegating teachers to the lower rungs of the middle class, if that. Luckily, though, Peggy Eddleman does not structure the book as mind vs. body. She makes sure that Hope, who narrates the book, is sensitive and even nurturing despite her athletic interests and abilities. For example, Hope is genuinely moved by her mother’s constant references to the brothers that Hope does not have: “My eight brothers…died before they were even born. It comforted her to believe they hung out with me as angels and acted like real brothers would while I did my farm chores. She wasn’t crazy. That was just her way of dealing with the fact that she wanted a house full of kids but only got one.” Hope’s father, meanwhile, knows she is destined for something important: “‘You’re a leader. People follow you. That means the decisions you make affect more than just you. You need to have the good of others in mind too.’” Hope does not consider herself leader material, but of course when the town faces its great crisis, it falls to Hope – along with her friends Aaren and Brock – to find a way across the surrounding mountains to bring help from outside. Aaren’s five-year-old sister, Brenna, proves an added complication, following the three preteens so they have to take her along. The difficult escape proves only the first huge challenge for Hope and her friends, and the book eventually leads to Hope’s realization that she is indeed a leader, that she can single-handedly face down the head of the bandits, and she can – unknowingly – invent something extremely important after all. This is a familiar coming-of-age story arc within an equally familiar dystopic future, but Eddleman handles it nicely and brings the book to a satisfying conclusion that nevertheless leaves the way open for the planned sequel.
Lara’s Gift looks back for atmosphere, not forward: Annemarie O’Brien sets the novel in 1910, in Imperial Russia, a place so different from anything young readers will be familiar with today that it might as well be just as fictional as Eddleman’s future world. The protagonist here is Lara, who looks forward to carrying on her family’s tradition of breeding borzoi dogs good enough for Russian nobility or even for Tsar Nicholas II himself. Lara expects to follow in her father’s footsteps to become kennel steward to Count Vorontsov, but when Lara’s baby brother, Bohdan, is born, her father decides that he should be the next kennel steward. And Lara is cut off from more than her expected future, for she has a vision when a borzoi named Zarya gives birth to a litter – a vision that angers and frightens her father but that induces him, very reluctantly, to allow the runt of the litter to live if Lara herself takes care of the pup. Lara knows from what she has seen in her mind that this dog, which she calls Zar, will have an important role to play, but she does not know what her own future will bring, except that she is sure it will involve the dogs she loves – which she has an extraordinary ability to understand. O’Brien uses a number of Russian words to give the story the ring of historic truth – the glossary at the back is not only helpful but also necessary for full understanding – but despite the exotic setting, O’Brien’s underlying theme of a young girl trying to find out where she fits in the world is not all that different from Eddleman’s. The family issues, although couched in different terms, are similar, too. Lara’s mother tells her at one point, speaking of Lara’s father and his attitude toward Lara’s visions, “‘He has much to think about now. His whole world of beliefs and Rules has flip-flopped. He’s struggling to sort it all out and make it right for you, himself, and the future of the dogs.’” Lara herself has much to think about, too, and the eventual rapprochement with her father and confirmation of her vision about Zar are, if not surprising, handled well and with sensitivity. O’Brien evokes the Russian settings more effectively than the personalities of the characters, most of whom fit preordained roles and have little that is surprising to say or do. But the story’s combination of the exotic and the expected is nicely handled, and the use of Russian and of some real people – Count Vorontsov’s borzoi kennels were in fact famed in their time – lends the whole work a pleasantly solid feeling of authenticity.