Sally Nicholls is not a household name here in America. She is possibly not even a name that most children’s librarians, booksellers, and teachers would recognize right off the bat. This, in spite of the fact that her previous book Ways To Live Forever was a stunning success. Folks became quite fond of that story about a boy with a terminal disease, and I suppose they expected Ms. Nicholls to do more of the same. That’s the trouble with starting off your career with realism. Move into fantasy and you’ll find that the fantasy fans don’t really know who you are and the realism fans are disgusted that you haven’t produced more of the same. Separate Season of Secrets from its predecessor, however, and what you have is a hearty little novel about a girl learning about the cruel war between the seasons, in the midst of her family’s own personal tribulations.
Since Molly and Hannah’s mother died they’ve been handling it as best they could. Their father, however, has not been handling it well. Not a jot. So distraught is he by the loss of his wife, in fact, that he sends his two daughters off to live with their grandparents in the country. One night Molly is witness to a frightening vision of a man run down by a pack of dogs and a horned man on a horse. In the ensuing days she tries to tell others, to no avail, then discovers the man in a nearby shed. She cannot nurse or help him, but she can learn as much as she can about him and what exactly he is. As she does, her father is drawn more and more into her life with her sister, though it takes him many tries and many mistakes before any progress can be made. The return of her father and the eventual destruction of the man come together in such a way as to give rise to winter, and the ensuing, beautiful, spring.
I’ve been reading so many books lately that don’t give a fig for beautiful language. Coming across Ms. Nicholls felt like a gulp of cool water then. I wasn’t two pages in when Molly let loose with the descriptive, “Hannah is one and half years older than me, yet she takes up about one and a half million times more space.” And later, “My dad’s shirts are always stiff and clean and white; you button him up all the way to his throat and there he is, locked up safe and going nowhere.” I love a book that gives everyday descriptions real personality and flair. It’s the signature style of Ms. Nicholls. It’s something you can count on in every book she writes.
And then there was an element to this title that I found simultaneously clever and frustrating. Age. Here we have a tale of two sisters, one older, one younger, and there’s not a moment in this story when we’ve a clear sense of how old they are. This is frustrating to a reviewer like myself since you judge how believable you find a character based, in large part, on whether or not they accurately act their age. I would have thought that Molly was acting a bit young for her age at quite a few points in the story, except that for all I know Molly could be seven or she could be ten. My suspicion is that Ms. Nicholls gave Molly a younger age, but then realized something. If you write a middle grade novel for 9-12 year-olds and you make your heroine only eight years of age, children aren’t going to want to read that story. Truth be told, kids like to read about children that are older than themselves. I don’t care how many horned baddies you throw in there, the minute they realize that they’re sympathizing with someone the age of their little brother or sister, they may abandon the novel tout suite. The solution then would be to eliminate ages altogether. A clever solution then, if a bit frustrating for those of us trying to get a firm grasp on whom these characters really are.
It’s such a strange novel that for a moment there you just have to wonder if this is all entirely in Molly’s head. She certainly believes that the man and the Holly King (a.k.a. the dude with the horns) are real, but might we take this book as a story that is just the wild fever dream of a girl desperately trying to recreate a strong male figure in the absence of her own father? You can get fairly far in with this interpretation, but at some point it’s just not possible anymore. What happens here is real, to a certain extent. For good or for ill.
I’ve always had a bit of interest in books for children that are brave enough to meld religions in some fashion. For example, there’s The Dark Is Rising with its fingers on pagan traditions and a nod to modern Christianity (a small nod). Better still was Pat Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse which managed to work in Christianity, the older fairy worship of the hills, and the even older dark religions that came before. Season of Secrets for its part is nothing so dark, but at the same time it isn’t afraid to lead its child readers to the edge of some pretty huge questions. The Man, as he is sometimes known, is a figure of rebirth in the spring. So it is that Nicholls will have Molly first encounter his likeness in a church (an accurate detail, I have little doubt) and then later say things like, “He looks like a curly haired Jesus” later even speculating (but not questioning) that, “he’s sort of god, like Jesus.” Nicholls also draws together different old English myths with skill, reminding readers that they may have seen the horned leader of The Wild Hunt not only in books like The Black Cauldron or the aforementioned The Dark is Rising but also in stories about Woden, Odin, Herne, and even King Arthur.
But the book that this reminded me the most of, both in terms of tone and subject matter, was David Almond’s Skellig. In one book you’ve a girl who tends to an injured man with the power over nature in an abandoned shed. In the other a boy who tends to a starving man with wings in his garage. Of course the relationship in Skellig is mildly contentious. “Season of Secrets”, in contrast, feels as if it is invoking the relationship between Lucy and Mr. Tumnus in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Not a bad comparison when you consider that in both cases you have wild nature spirits tamed, in a sense, by little British girls. Much of this story has been seen before in some sense, but Nicholls puts her own very unique spin on the storytelling. The result is a powerful look at love, nature, the seasons, family, and home.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Title: American publishers change the name of British books every day. So why couldn’t we do the same we this one? I haven’t found a title as difficult to remember as this since When You Reach Me came onto the scene.
Notes on the Cover: We’ve been seeing a few of these types of covers in the last year or so, most notably this year’s Sweetly by Jackson Pearce:
I like the subtlety of the Nicholls book a bit more. I also like that this wasn’t done to the jacket merely to look cool (though that helps) but because it has a direct connection to the narrative. I also suspect that if I place this book with the cover visible outward in my children’s room, some fiction-loving patron will see it and instantly be drawn to whatever it is they may find inside.
The original jacket for the hardcover British edition of this book was fairly straightforward:
However, I confess to preferring the British paperback jacket, if only because the Jacqueline Wilson quote on the cover uses the term “cracking”.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Here’s a booktalk for it (though it somehow manages to make this book sound like The Monkey’s Paw or something).
- A very sweet post about the book and Ms. Nicholls from a teen fan.
- A somewhat peculiar letter to Arthur A. Levine, not the actual author, regarding the way in which Molly’s mother died in this book.
- It was a finalist for the Manchester Book Award.
- And here you can read Ms. Nicholls as she discusses the difficulty of not only writing a second novel, but a fantasy one at that.