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Caesar's Antlers
Brooks Hansen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books, 224 pages

A review by Neil Walsh

Caesar's Antlers is Hansen's first young adult novel. The story is well-crafted and highly engaging, but it's only fair to warn you that it would take an extraordinarily astute ten-year-old to fully appreciate the subtlety of Hansen's writing.

The main thrust of the story is fairly straightforward. Piorello, a sparrow with a new family, is separated from his mate and offspring through accident and human intervention. Bette, his mate, wants to look for Piorello, but is unable to search far from her nest and two chicks. When Caesar, a rather taciturn and semi-domesticated reindeer, happens along, he is gracious enough to permit Bette to transfer her nest to his antlers. Now she has a little more mobility. Trouble is, she doesn't really know where to look. But Caesar has a specific destination in mind and is content to let Bette and her two chicks keep him company for the journey, and they feel better for being out in the world searching for Piorello.

Meanwhile, Piorello finds himself far from the little birch wood he knew, in a strange place across the sea. His only hope of getting home is to learn how to fly with the geese, who are planning to migrate across the sea when winter comes. But it's no easy task for a tiny sparrow to keep up with a flock of geese.

The irony is that, owing to a sparrow's total lack of geographical knowledge, Piorello is planning to migrate south from England, while Bette is travelling to northern Norway looking for him. If they keep to their respective courses, they'll never be reunited.

The sparrows encounter a wide range of friends -- Caesar the reindeer, Bernard the Saint Bernard, the human child known to the sparrows as "The Seed Girl," and more -- and a few very threatening enemies -- a spiteful falcon, and a pack of wolves, not to mention some harsh weather.

The fantastical element of the story enters late into the picture (assuming that one accepts casual conversation between sparrows and Saint Bernards to be unexceptional), when Bette has a vision of the other side of Piorello's near-death experience. I don't want to spoil all the surprises in this book, so I'll just say that it's a powerfully evocative scene.

Caesar's Antlers is, as I have said, an engaging tale. I suspect that many young readers would find themselves getting lost or missing something vital. Much of the dialogue is implied, and many things perceived by the animals are not fully understood by them, nor are they explicitly stated for the benefit of the reader. However, if you do know a young person with a mature reading ability, this might make an ideal Christmas book -- lots of selfless giving and sacrifice in the spirit of the season. And the story ends in the dark hours of Christmas morning.

Copyright © 1997 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

Caesar's Antlers
Brooks Hansen
Brooks Hansen graduated from Harvard in 1987 and now lives in New York City. The Chess Garden, his second novel for adults, was a Publishers Weekly book of the year in 1995.

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