Ideally, if I were really on the Printz Committee, I’d be done reading all the contendas by this point. Actually, if we’re going for ideal, I’d have been done for a couple of weeks. At this point in the year, it’s time for very serious rereading: really going through the contendas in detail, weighing various elements, moving past first impressions into a firmer opinion of each title.
And, you guys, that would be super helpful because I could do with a reread of this title. (I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately.) But let’s get started.
We’ve got three voices telling two stories, united by one village. Rebecca and her father have moved into the tiny village of Winterfold.There, she meets Ferelith, a mysterious and possibly dangerous girl obsessed with terrible stories and horrifying local history. The local history concerns a village priest — we read portions of his 18th century journal — who teams up with an owner of Winterfold Hall to find out if there’s life after death. (And from here on in, there will be at least some minor spoilers, so if you haven’t read this, and want to, you might want to wait on finishing this review!)
Sedgwick is playing with a couple of genres; the book is part psychological suspense and part horror story. It reminded me a lot of Imaginary Girls. There’s a dash of an unreliable narrator (Ferelith gives an accounting of events from her perspective but tells you upfront, “And actually I’m lying.”), girls who are united by death, a town haunted by the water… This, of course, has no real place at the Printz Table Talk, so let’s move on and see if I can tease out some coherent thoughts.
In a lot of ways, this is a really strong contender. Sedgwick does a fantastic job of building up the suspense. Everything feels appropriately haunted and inevitable and perfectly paced — slow but steady. Nothing feels wasted; the language is lean but often lovely. (“Rebecca dozes late into the morning, listening to the sound of her father downstairs, making breakfast, the radio on in the background, gently talking to no one.”) The town of Winterfold is delicious — oppressive, atmospheric, gray and crumbling.
The book is full of echoes and details and images that play with the major themes of the story. Just as the town of Winterfold waits passively, patiently, for the sea to inevitably swallow its ancient buildings, the two girls are drawn, inevitably, to explore the ruins of Winterfold Hall and investigate the terrible secret that the priest buried in its cellar. The angel/devil motif is echoed by other opposite images: fair Rebecca/dark Ferelith; white crow/black crows; the silver cross/the silver heart.
The girls seemed to spend a great deal of time in graveyards — fitting, since the novel is suffused with death. From the fabled munchkin suicide of the Wizard of Oz to Ferelith’s mother who hanged herself to the seven guillotine victims in the Winterfold Hall cellar…and all of this takes place in a town that is slowly crumbling to death by falling over into the sea. Or, as Ferelith tells us:
But whatever time of year, Winterfold has a cold embrace and, like the snows of winter, it does not let you go easily.
Once upon a time there was a whole town here, not just a handful of houses. A town with twelve churches and thousands of people, dozens of streets, and a busy harbor.
And then the sea ate it.
There are some things I’d really be paying attention to on reread. The Ferelith chapters, for one. I got hung up in her unreliable narrator persona (or her generally untrustworthy narrator persona; she might not be totally unreliable), and I’d need a little more time to examine all the levels of things she’s telling us. It’s a bold choice to make Ferelith, the larger-than-life character, one of two first person narrators. This allows Sedgwick to slowly parcel out information about Rebecca and her father and their shared, painful past. It also allows Sedgwick to give us information that is at least slightly suspect, full of layers and always fascinating. It also sits in contrast with the present tense, present day narration and allows us to believe that Ferelith might actually be talking to us from beyond death.
I would use my reread to really pay attention to the Ferelith/Rebecca connection (something, it’s worth noting, that is really only described by Ferelith). I never quite felt it — but that’s totally personal. I think I might believe it once I’ve spent a little more time with them. I may have struggled with that emotional component because there’s quite a lot going on in the narrative. Rebecca and Ferelith have their own baggage and pasts that haunt them. Rebecca’s father’s past is a fairly major part of the plot, too, although he’s not “onscreen” too much of the time. And that’s only 2/3 of the narration — I haven’t even talked about the priest and the doctor at all!
So at this point, I’d say…yes, it’s a contenda, but I’m not ready to commit to naming it a final five. What do you guys think?
Pub details: Roaring Brook, July 2011. Read an ARC.