Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus Sedgwick's Printz Award-winning novel Midwinterblood was another book that I ear-marked at the recent YA literature conference at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. It had been on my list for a few months, but talking to other teachers and librarians who had just read it gave me the extra push to add it to a big Amazon order.

I have been following Sedgwick's work since I read My Swordhand is Swinging, which was by far the most frightening vampire book I had ever, and have ever, read. Even though I love other books with a vampire theme - I read Anne Rice through middle and high school, loved Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and ripped through the Twilight Saga - nothing has never come as close to instilling that exact brand of terror that Sedgwick's does. I think it was in part its Medieval/1600s setting, the Black Woods feel, and the complete lack of romance that nudges its fear factor into a new territory. It was an incredible book, and I still recommend it as a solid October/Halloween read.

So Midwinterblood was certainly on my radar, not just because of Sedgwick, but also because the book won the Printz Award this year, and I am always a sucker for a Printz Award winner or Honor book.

Structurally, Midwinterblood is an impeccable story. It begins in the near future of 2073 as Eric Seven journeys to the remote island of Blessed in order to research and write a journalist feature. The inhabitants of Blessed are said to live lives longer than anywhere else in the world, and Eric sets out to discover their secret. But when he arrives, he starts to feel a strange sense of deja vu, and he feels as if he recognizes a local woman named Merle. He's seen her face before, and he believes that if he could only remember, he could make everything make sense. Eric Seven's story is short, spanning just enough time to give readers a sense of the island and the characters who will keep reappearing throughout subsequent stories. Because these stories are linked, starting in 2073 and counting backwards to 2011, 1944, 1902, 1848, the 10th century, and then to "Time unknown." Eric and Merle (and other residents of Blessed) are characters in every story, although their ages change, their relationship to one another changes, and history reconstructs accordingly.

I was more and more engaged as time moved backwards and the story of Eric and Merle developed, nuanced, and formed into a centuries long love story (and what various kinds of love are showcased, spanning different permutations of relationships and family). My favorite story is a story within a story: in "The Unquiet Grave", a new caretaker is telling a bedtime story to a pair of children, who listen raptly, slowly understanding that the story they hear is a ghostly, heartbreaking one. Another, "The Painter," is about a child's relationship to a painter who lives in a remote part of the island that she walks to with her mother:
They set off for home, taking a different way back.
'I always prefer a walk that goes in a circle,' Bridget explained to her daughter. 'Don't you?'
Merle hadn't thought about this before.
'I don't know. I think I like there-and-back walks too.' (136)
As their souls reunite in different ways, Eric and Merle live out a collection of lives that fit into a series of stories. The mystery of their rebirth is told in part through all of the stories, although Eric feels their connection more than he can explain it:
Maybe he knows nothing. Maybe it's just that he feels it all, but whatever is happening to him, he understands that he lived before. He lived other lives, in different times. And why not? It's something he has often wondered about, sitting on the train in the morning, looking from the corner of  his eye at the other commuters, wondering why.
Why am I not living that person's life? That man, there, with the sharp suit and the slightly stupid tie? Or that scruffy guy with his headphones? Or that woman, a little pregnant? (259)
While the book is devoid of a solid teenage character, it sits comfortably as YA lit, and won one of the most prestigious awards for that category of literature. But it is a book for everybody, a good crossover choice that teenagers and adults would enjoy equally. It's appeal as a text to use in high school English classes was clear in my edition: there are a series of reading and discussion questions at the end that emphasize its "teach-ability" and just how much is layered throughout. For structure alone and the way these stories and their characters interact with one another, it makes an excellent text for a high school classroom. But outside of the classroom, what is the draw for teenage readers?

Perhaps it is the remarkable emphasis on storytelling, and the way that it circles through time periods. I keep returning to the story that comes mid-point in the book, my favorite, "The Unquiet Grave." It's the story-within-a-story format that seems so YA, layered deep and necessitating some active reading for full immersion. It reminded me of the Sandman volume by Neil Gaiman World's End, that layers stories within one another. That format desires a sustained attention, one that trusts that the author will lead a reader out from under the structural layers without losing the story. And teens, more than anyone, are willing to invest in story, especially one that will carry them to the center of it, and then gently show them the way out.

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