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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Afterlife, by Gary Soto, Harcourt, 2003, $16.
The She, by Carol Plum-Ucci, Harcourt, 2003, $17.
East, by Edith Pattou, Harcourt, 2003, $18.

FAIR warning: School has been underway for three months, and I have two children in grade school. This is a parent short-form way of saying that I've been living in a plague zone. The flu has dominated not our conversations, but our daily lives, and I've been reading only in between those brief stretches in which someone is not feverish or throwing up. Sadly, this past week, that's been me.

This particular column is focused on YA novels; there's been an explosion in their publication which hasn't abated, and several extremely noteworthy reprints have been put out: Magic Carpet, the Harcourt YA paperback line, has picked up Patricia McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld, her brilliant coming-of-age novel which is about many things, not the least of which is the danger of power fantasy and the personal cost of devoting your life to revenge. Firebird has brought out the following: Pamela Dean's trilogy, The Hidden Land, The Secret Country, and The Whim of the Dragon, lovely novels about children's fantasy worlds, and the danger of their reality, the mystery of its evocation, and the price and pleasure to be found there; Elizabeth Wein's The Winter Prince, one of the best takes on the Arthurian mythos that I've ever read, a story in which not a single word is wasted; Charle's de Lint's Riddle of the Wren, possibly my favorite of his many novels. I mention these in brief because they should be read by anyone who enjoys this column, but as they're reprints, with a history of great reviews, I won't say more than that. Well, and that they're highly, highly recommended, of course.

*     *     *

Gary Soto's The Afterlife touches on themes that have always spoken to me, even from an early age. When I picked it up, the cover-flap blurb drew me in, and I thought that it was going to be two things: a ghost story (which I'm fond of, in the right mood), and a meditation on death. I found Soto's young protagonist compelling almost instantly, given that he's dying a horrible death; he has a very consistent tone, a completely natural way of speaking, that drags a reader along.

But although the protagonist of the book is dead, he's not a ghost in the traditional sense of the word; he's a disembodied spirit with an irreverent live personality, a sense of wonder, and a sense of annoyance that the first real date of his life, as planned, just got botched on a big scale. Called Chuy by friends and family, he meets his end at the hands of a knife-wielding man with yellow shoes, who managed to take offense at something Chuy said that wasn't offensive, as far as either I, or Chuy, could tell.

We follow Chuy's literal ascent from his body, as he figures out the ropes of being a dead guy, and watch him wander around Fresno, blown by the wind until he can figure out how to move properly (or hitch a ride), and we listen to his meditations on his state. He's not angry, not really; he's just a bit bummed that he's ended life without really getting a good shot at love.

We meet his family and his friends in glimpses; we see his mother's angry attempt to deal with the loss of her only son; we see his uncle and his cousin try to do the same. His cultural outlook informs the whole of the narrative, up to and including his first view of a really cute just-dead girl named Crystal.

Soto is turning the concept of justice on its head, here; the narrator is a very forgiving narrator, and in the end, more concerned with chasing the really cute girl than almost anything else. It works as a character study.

But Soto doesn't try to make sense of death here; he doesn't try to make sense of loss. He doesn't judge, much. It's the book's strength, but it's also the book's weakness—there really isn't a lot of narrative structure, and the episodic nature of bouncing from one place to the next, mixed as it is with a very subtle condemnation of the things we do when we're crazy with grief (like, say, try to get revenge) raises more questions than it answers.

Given that the title of the book is The Afterlife, and given that it's a very secular few days of afterlife, this shouldn't be surprising—but perhaps because the issues are seriously raised and just as cavalierly dumped by the wayside, again entirely in character for the narrator, one's left at the end feeling that one missed something, or misplaced it; the end is abrupt, and it doesn't offer a book's sense of closure.

*     *     *

Carol Plum-Ucci has a more traditional take on death in The She. Of course, in Plum-Ucci's novel, the dead aren't narrating; they're just the driving force behind the lives of two brothers, born several years apart, whose parents die in a terrible boating accident in their native home in West Hook. Their father and mother owned Goliath, a freighter that had seen better days, and when Evan was very young, they went out in their ship. A ship-to-shore transmission is the last thing Evan has of his parents, and it's a messy, broken thing. Were it not for the fact that he was young enough to forget, and more important, that his brother Emmett has spent most of his life doing a rationalist's version of just that forgetting, Evan would have been content to leave it at that.

But one night, out for fun, a hard-as-nails, bitter, world-weary girl named Grey spikes a party drink with LSD—and Evan is sent, raving, to recuperate from the horror of that day. Because on that day, mired by the customs and beliefs of West Hook, Evan was certain that his parents were killed by the unnatural, watery force the locals call Ella Diablo, The She of the title. Evan recovers. Evan doesn't mention what the LSD brought back. But his brother is concerned and watchful, and when Evan, a prankster with a sense of humor that is his answer to boredom, is called in by the principal of his school, things take a turn in a direction that will lead him back to the past.

Grey, the spoiled scion of a very wealthy lawyer, has booked herself into Saint Elizabeth's, a mission-run home for the unhinged. Evan's done some community work with Saint Elizabeth's before, and has helped an abused boy find his footing; the principal wants him to do something similar for Grey. Of course the principal, Mrs. Ashaad, is unaware of Grey's spiking of a drink; she knows only that in the course of Grey's voluntary rehabilitation, Grey has asked to see Evan. Evan almost says no.

But Grey's there because of a boating accident. She and her friend Lydia, girls with a mean streak a mile wide, took a girl scout out boating in West Hook. They rolled their small boat on purpose, just to teach her a thing or two because she's a damn girl scout, a goody-two-shoes kind of happy girl that Grey can't stand—and the girl, who could swim, didn't make it back to the boat; she was sucked in by the water. And all the while she was being sucked down, Grey could hear a hideous, terrible shrieking. One that she's heard about before, from the distraught, LSD-induced hysteria that Evan underwent at her hands.

Grey is not a nice girl. She wanted to cause humiliation, misery, and fear—but she didn't want to cause death; she's not, as she says, a murderer. Yet. The reason she starts to speak with Evan is because part of her therapy is a list of apologies for past crimes, and she wants to trade apology for information. This probably makes clear just how much of a grasp on "apology" she has. But she's trying.

This book is a terrific blend of a problem novel and a supernatural one. Evan is coming of age—and because he is, his brother Emmett finally tells him the truth about their parents. It's a truth that Evan doesn't want to believe. And the lack of that desire is believable because parents, like Santa, are the focal point of our young lives: learning that they're fallible, human, wrong, is always a shock when it first hits, but most of us have the rest of our lives to make the adjustment; Evan's time was cut short so brutally, he has to do it all at once, if he can.

The writing is taut, and laced with a truthful vulnerability and a dark wit; it covers a variety of issues and arguments, and does so without ever stopping in place. I enjoyed it immensely, and couldn't put it down.

*     *     *

But of the three this month, Edith Pattou has most won my heart with her novel, East. The cover flap states that it's a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and in some fashion, it is—although it draws on other myths and other fairy tales for ambience. Ebba Rose is a misnamed child. In her family, her mother's superstition is a way of life, and the family superstition goes thus: The direction the parent is facing when the child is born—the eight points of the compass—will decide the child's character for the rest of its life. Her mother is determined to have no North-born children because she was told by a fortune teller that any North-born children she had would be buried in a distant, cold land, but when her favored daughter dies of a childhood illness, and she becomes pregnant again, she wants to replace that daughter with an East-facing girl. The baby comes early, and she is, of course, a North-born girl, a child with wanderlust and a need to explore.

She is adored by her older brother, Neddy, born North-East. She is adored by her father and the rest of her family; she is protected with fearful vigilance by a mother who refuses to remember the direction of her birth. And her life is saved, when she is two, by the appearance of a great, white bear. Neddy sees the bear, then, and he knows it's significant. When times get hard—as they must—and another child falls sick, the bear returns and offers the family the life of their sick daughter in exchange for Rose. The father will hear none of it, but the mother is desperate enough, hysterical enough, that she's willing to accept this trade, and Rose's discovery of her true name, and her birth, sends her to the bear, and into the land of magic.

Rose has always loved to weave; it's one of the only domestic things she does love. Pattou makes the weaving both magical and mundane. And she understands, truly, what this means.

"…And I realized how much more complicated life is without the benefit of magic…. I thought wistfully of how magic lets you skip over the steps of things. That is what makes it so appealing. But, I thought, the steps of things is where life is truly found, in doing the day-to-day tasks.… Sitting at the table back home and peeling potatoes with my mothers and sisters in companionable silence.…"
Broken into several viewpoints and very short chapters, the story of Rose and her White Bear unfolds. It reads in part like The Snow Queen, in part like Beauty and the Beast, and in part like the story of Cupid and Psyche—which is doing a grave injustice to Pattou, who makes it all her own with a quiet élan. She's not in a hurry; the book isn't written at a breakneck pace. This doesn't mean it's padded or over-wordy; she spends just as much time as she needs, but she takes that time to give details and meaning to the characters, warts and all, for whom she clearly feels such wise affection. Rose makes mistakes, but she blames no one for them but herself; she feels pain, but she's not whiny. She's a lovely, human character, a welcome addition to the canon of retold fairy tales.

In fact, this book reminds me of nothing so much as vintage Robin McKinley, which, given my love of McKinley's work, is high, high praise. It's published as a YA, and will no doubt be shelved that way – but most of McKinley's early hardcovers were published that way as well. Do yourself the great pleasure of hunting it down in hardcover, because you'll want to read it again once you've finished.

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