Friday, December 17, 2010

YA Book Review: The Water Seeker

There are a lot of a fantasy, escapist, vampire YA novels produced, and there are a lot of YA novels involving collisions --a teen collides with life.  Kimberly Willis Holt's The Water Seeker is a refreshingly wholesome novel.  Based on the pioneers moving their lives along the Oregon Trail, this piece of historical fiction just stands out from the crowd in that it feels unique: no one is running from vampires, alcohol addiction, bullying, or any of the other dangers a teen faces today.  The dangers in this novel are natural, timeless, and tangible.

Two themes in particular stood out the most: beauty and becoming a man.

The theme that beauty is only skin deep is really artfully played here by the author.  There is a pretty girl, Jubilee, and an ugly girl, Gwendolyn.  The young protagonist of the novel, Amos, has his sights set on Jubilee; however, Gwendolyn is attracted to Amos.  Sadly, no one can even look at Gwendolyn: one eye is larger than the other, and the left side of her face is hideously scarred.  As we move through the novel, Gwendolyn's scars begin to vanish...not in reality, yet we experience it as Amos does.  He doesn't even notice them as he gets to know Gwendolyn more and more.  She is beautiful down to her soul.

There is also a more subtle, beauty is only skin deep, lesson unfolding through the novel.  The white man's perspective of the Native-American.  Jake, Amos's father, remarries later in life to a Shoshone.  Again, we are taken on a really subtle journey of valuing characters by appearance and then by what is inside.  We experience what the characters experience.

Regarding the actual craft of writing, Kimberly Willis Holt really found a rhythm in this novel.  Her use of the senses is strong and relevant.  Some of the characters have their own unique scents:
They settled on the rocky ground.  He sat a few inches from her, so close she was able to breathe in his scent.  There was the water, but also something else she'd not detected before.  He smelled faintly of pine and earth, like someone else she'd known, but could not recall.
These scents connect to a part of who they are and what their journey is in the novel.  The use of the senses is so important in any novel, obviously.   This chronicle of a journey along the rugged Oregon Trail comes to life because of the senses: the loss of life; the lose of body parts; the wet and damp of the rain; the cold; the hard and uneven ground; the thinning and fraying of clothing and shoes; and, of course, the smells.  It brings the reader to the unique hardships of this time and place; none of us has ever experienced anything quite like this brutally physical journey.

The Water Seeker certainly fits comfortably into the familiar American plot of someone goes on a journey.  The all-American tale of folks lighting out for the territory is in our American blood and these stories just seem to resonate a time that was good and honest.  I like that the author layered several journeys within the plot.  There is the 2,000 mile physical journey, but that is backdrop for the more interesting and engaging journeys of our protagonist, Amos.

I mentioned his journey in seeing the scarred Gwendolyn as truly beautiful, but there is also the journey to becoming a man.  He absolutely starts the book an infant who is cared for in the only way his father, Jake, can manage; and concludes the novel caring for his father --and at times literally carrying him so he can work.

One other element of the novel warrants mention.  Birds.

Birds of all types hover around the characters, but they hover around the reader as well.  Sometimes they just watch, and at other times they pester in droves when they do not like what is happening to or around Amos.  We feel they are the spirit or spirit guide for Amos's mother, Delilah, who passed while giving birth to Amos.  Her spirit also appears several times in the book; she allows herself to be seen by those guarding over and raising her son.  More than just a writer's trick, this thread establishes the belief that we are forever connected to loved ones and friends.  The imprint made on us by friends and loved ones constantly resurfaces throughout the novel.  Even when a friend or loved one may be taken from us long before we ever expected or needed, their influence, spirit, or essence never leaves us.

We are always our mother's son.

I appreciate how Kimberly Willis-Holt ended the novel:  Jake and Amos sitting together on a porch, looking out across the plains and into the mountains.  It is a simple image, but a beautiful one at the same time.  She gave Jake and Amos that time together, to enjoy each other.  They are forever bonded. even when Jake will pass, many characters in this novel did not have the privilege of this type of moment that it makes it all the more powerful in the conclusion.

We know Jake and Amos reflect at this moment.

I know I did as well.

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