Friday, February 09, 2007

Poetry Friday: The Braid

A Book Review for Poetry Friday. Round up is over at The Blue Rose Girls.

The Braid by Helen Frost. 2006. Copy from library. Cybils long list.

The Plot: 1850. Scotland. People are being forced off the land they have lived on for generations; the MacKinnons decide to move to Canada for a new start. Grandma Peggy doesn't want to go. On the night the family is to leave, Sarah, 15, runs away; she wants to stay in Scotland with her grandmother. There is no time to go after her; so the rest of the family, including her sister, Jeannie, 14, make their way to Cape Breton, Canada.. The Braid tells the story of sisters Sarah and Jeannie and their now-separate lives. The Braid is also something physical; the girls had braided their hair together, and as they slept Sarah cut it, leaving half with her sister.

The Good: People in power are not nice to people not in power. That's the fact. Here, the MacKinnons (and others) are affected by the Highland Clearances. The parents along with Jeannie, Flora (6), Margaret (5) and baby Willie make their way across the Atlantic to Cape Breton. This is a work of historical fiction that is true to the facts of the time. That sentence is code for people die during the crossing. Yes, I cried. But that's all I'll say.

Frost alternates between Sarah and Jeannie's narrative poems and praise poems that celebrate aspects of the sisters' lives.

Sarah stays and moves with her grandmother to an isolated island; she finds community and perhaps love.

Jeannie survives the voyage, but the future the family hoped for is not the future they find. Jeannie struggles and wonders about her sister.

Frost stays true to the time; neither Sarah nor Jeannie are literate; the family separation is brutally final, with no hope for direct communication. In a time of cell phones and text messaging, it is almost impossible to imagine a time where it would be months before Sarah learns of the deaths of some of her family. As time goes by, all the girls have is hope that the other is doing well, hope that somehow they will connect.

Most brilliant of all is how Frost braids together the girls stories. For the narrative poems, the last word of each line of one poem becomes the first word of each line of the next poem. For the praise poems, the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next. Independent, yet dependent; alone, yet connected.

A praise poem, Song:

The songs that enter children's ears
carried across centuries of
love, stay with them, bringing comfort,
setting their feet dancing, coming
back to them when their own children
first look up and see them smiling
or hear them weeping as they rock
strong boats upon a storm sea.

The last line of the praise poem before this one was "she sings into her children's ears"; the next praise poem begins, "a strong boat on a stormy sea."

I liked that the MacKinnon family emigrated to Canada. It's a silly thing to point out, but all too often in historical fiction published in the US the US is the only place people from Europe went. Um, so not true. Another pet peeve? Based on almost every fiction book about the Irish Famine* published in the US, no one stayed in Ireland. Moving to the U.S. is always the "happy ending" in the book. So it's nice to see a book that also tells the story of the people left behind; of Sarah and her grandmother.

On my "wishes that will never come true" list; while I found Jeannie's and Sarah's stories wonderfully complete, I do wonder about their descendants and wish for a book set in present day as the two links of the family reconnect. (Yes, I know they are made up people.)

Links:
interactive reader review.
kids lit review.
Linda Sue Park: What I'm Reading review.
Frost has assembled a wealth of links for The Braid, making my job way easier.
The Highland Clearances web project.
The Highland Clearances and effects on Scotland today.
The Highland Clearances: from the BBC, resource for children & teachers.
Two Lives Braided Together: the School Library Journal author interview.
propernoun review.
Booktalks: Quick and Simple Blog review (hey, I didn't know Nancy Keane had a blog!)
The Goddess of YA Literature review.
Sarah's Hold Shelf review. (these are in no order other than the order that I found them.)

*Edited to add: yes, this is the Highland Clearances, not the Famine, but I saw parallels in families being forced to emigrate. Wanted to clarify that's why I mention it; not that I confused the two.

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