Monday, January 13, 2014

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it -- Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else.
And then, one day, Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to friends at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he had been taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him.
Anne Ursu, acclaimed author of the Cronus Chronicles, has written a stunningly original fairy tale of modern-day America. Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson story "The Snow Queen," Breadcrumbs is in turn a remarkable middle-grade adventure, a dazzling ode to the power of fantasy, and a heartbreaking meditation on how growing up is as much a choice as it is something that happens to us.

~Print copy, 312 pages
Published: 2011 by Walden Pond Press

Well, darn. I should know better by now that I get restless over books about growing up.

I loved the writing of this book. Beautiful voice, kind of American-ish and reference-y. Hazel is a lovely character; very creative, and misunderstood, an outsider in fifth grade, but she never gave up being creative. She daydreams, reads stories, and thinks in story terms. Exactly how I was. And still am.

But she was always a little dependent on Jack. And while I have little experience in friendships, I didn't really see... why. They had adventures, she could always count on him to not judge her, but she seemed very focused on him. She looked into his classroom and made faces at him while his teacher's back was turned, she met him outside... at one point, she remembers how they were pretending to face down a dragon, and when she suggested that she rescued him, he refused.

Gender played a rather nuanced role in this, I think. It's not just growing up. Yes, she changes over the course of the story, as she sees things that are real, not fairy tales, that are horrible and somewhat depressing. She walks into a woods wanting to bring her friend back, and she finds that anyone who is looking for something goes in there, and not all of them remain sane. But some of the things dropped in there, it had a way of... I don't know. Looking at things nuanced.

Hazel was always there to comfort Jack, through his mother's fall into depression, but she's not enough. It's stated that he willingly goes with the white witch, over and over again. She's always trying to bring him up, she's always looking at his drawings and smiling at him and trying to remind him who he really is. And the only mention of Jack reciprocating this is when he gives her a baseball signed by a famous player, right after Hazel's dad leaves.

So there's that. And, while we're mentioning stuff like this, everyone around her keeps telling her it's weird that she and Jack are still friends, even her mother. That a boy and a girl can't be friends. And even I can see that in real life, and it makes me a little sick to my stomach to think about that. That things get separated in real life, and in books, and I know it's being realistic, but... along with what I mentioned above, it sort of curbed my taste for it. I think it is a thoughtful commentary on gender, except with perhaps a bit of bias towards the male side. (Not that I blame Miss Ursu. We all grew up in patriarchy, as much as it turns my stomach.)

But the setting was amazing, as well as plenty of the characters she meets in the lost woods. A forest, where people looking for something end up? And it does strange things to their minds? And they almost never find their way out, because they almost never find what they're looking for? Pretty cool. And like I said, written pretty well, too.

And, of course, I'm a sucker for fairy tale re-tellings. And the white witch, she wasn't some mustache-twirling evil villain, but neither was she some shades-of-gray villain, either. She's sort of... well, a cold-hearted woman, scientific, almost. It's said, in the book, she "lives in a palace of ice with a heart to match."

So, overall, I... don't even know what I would give this. I would recommend it to most people, I suppose, though only if asked. Mostly, these sorts of books I just keep in my head and ponder over, never specifically recommending or un-recommending to people. Kind of literary-ish and fantasy-ish at the same time, like a myth or a fable. And I am not entirely sure what I pull out of it.

I guess I give it a 3.25 stars. I did like it, but it doesn't rate as high as a 4 stars, an actual "I loved it."


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