How many books are there within these 220 odd pages? Here’s the starkness of a Border Ballad, while here’s the ironic gentility of Jane Austen; and here are a couple of sudden deaths which turn everything upside down. On this page, we might be in the rural poverty of the American Depression; and on the next, in an Ireland with transatlantic jets and taxis and telephones but certainly not computers and i-pads and cellphones. Here’s an adventure charged with childlike simplicity and imagination and there’s a drawing-room where a visiting lawyer greets a lady with, ‘You are always the epitome of refinement’. And then there’s the question of what or who is what you might call ‘real’. If two children can both believe they have met and talked with a strange boy called Finn who is one moment at death’s door and the next as fit as a flea, does that mean he must really exist – exist in the way we usually mean exist? And if he is a ghost, can ghosts chat and touch and even kiss? Of course they can.
Sharon Creech has the affirmation of both Newbery and Carnegie Medals in her cv. More than most novelists, her writing reflects someone exploring as she pleases, taking whatever risks she cares to take, to be enjoyed by those who want to listen. And they’ll be constantly rewarded and surprised too, for the language here is exhilarating and amusing in its new-minted invention. Two small girls, Lizzie and our narrator, Naomi, both orphans, are best friends, somewhere and somewhen in the States. Their horizons extend no further than the boundaries of their parish. Both have powerful, but different, imaginations, echoed in every word they speak or sing. Both ache for their parents; one is secure in the love of her foster parents while the other is desperately scared that hers will give her away any day soon. A boy called Finn literally drops into their lives, falling dead (but not dead) out of a tree. Across the ocean in Ireland, another story now stirs into being, this time among people at the other end of their lives; and that story interplays with those of Lizzie and Naomi, first running alongside, then converging and then driving forward together (though still echoing across the ocean).
More detail of the plot, or of character, would do this book and its potential readers no favours and no justice. It’s about loss and longing, searching and finding, recognitions about yourself and others; about love and jealousy which are hard to understand on first meeting. It is tender and delicate and then suddenly violent and risky. Despite those passenger jets, it feels outside time. We are asked to share the perspective of a child which may be more literary than literally credible in a mundane sense; but in a book where strangeness and the supernatural are elusive but possible – not to say unavoidable – that works just fine. It is as though, much of the time we are looking through dappled shafts of sunlight at once illuminating and shadowing, entranced not by the extravagant, but by the everyday.
Perhaps Naomi herself, in a moment of new clarity, offers some kind of summary (the context doesn’t matter): “‘But what is “a story”? It’s in here now’ – I tapped my head – ‘with all the other stuff, so maybe everything is a story.’” And maybe everyone she has ever known or ever will know has a part in the pattern of the same story. With a bit of luck.