Wednesday, December 8, 2010

YA Novel Review: Madapple

The joy of reading this book is in its protagonist, Aslaug.   She is trying to discover who she is, as are we. We want to know: what are you?  That simple premise is enough to engross the reader in a plot which twists around and around itself like a climbing vine. One moment you will believe that Aslaug is human, another you might lean towards her being a mythical creature, and then enough occurs and you settle onto the fact that she is indeed human.  Yet, you wonder.  Circumstances change.  More details arise.  Is she a goddess?  A witch?  Was she the next coming of the Christ?  No...she's human. Isn't she?  But you doubt.  You definitely will doubt all the way through to the final paragraphs.

Students check in with me almost daily regarding the books I read and share with them.  They are used to my being able to read a YA every few days.  Even though I completed Christina Meldrum's Madapple in three afternoons, my early thoughts to my students was that it was a fairly unsettling novel to read.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  I had to put it down to let it all sink in.  I wanted to keep going, but the novel was so rich in detail, religion, folklore, science, and sharp twists in character development, that I felt that I needed a short respite from the story on several occasions. 

When I wasn't pausing to think about all of the interesting use and role of plants in the novel (each chapter is named for a plant), I was stopping to wrap my head around who the character could be based on what new clues were provided.  Add to this: stops for facts provided in the trial, Christian and pagan history, and the plot.  Oh yeah, the plot...that was interesting too.

The novel's chapters alternate between a murder trial held in 2007, and Aslaug's life experiences before the murders.  She is on trial for two separate murders: her mother, and then her aunt and her cousin.  While we are not certain what Aslaug is, we are also not certain what she did, or what she did not do.  I felt a sustained unease, a slight;y taut pulling on the logical portion of my brain.  While I hung in there with Aslaug, I never truly knew if I was hanging in there with a murderer, the devil, a fallen angel...

There are moments where I felt like I was backing the wrong horse.

One of the pleasures of reading some of the great stories out there in YA literature is, of course, being able to discuss them with my students.  Sadly, I haven't found one who has read this novel yet.  They seem interested when I tell them about it.  They seem intrigued by the strangeness of the particulars of the plot.  I know more are going to try to read it.  Yet, one of my best readers (an 8th grader) told me yesterday that she had to put it down and has never picked it back up.  She couldn't finish it; she felt it grew too strange for her and she couldn't hang in there with it.

Sadly, I can't imagine many of my 8th graders being patient enough to hang in there with Madapple.  I can see them getting lost in all of the religion and mythology and the science and nature, and I teach bright kids and good readers.  I hope I'm wrong.  I really do.  Maybe I am underestimating them.  It is a really good book; some of the best moments of the book are in places where Meldrum burrows us deep within paganism and early Christianity.  Yet, it is these moments which I feel lose a younger reader.  Again, maybe I am not giving my students enough credit.

Aslaug, the narrator, tells us:
...a sequence of events, even down to the most minute detail, does not imply an understanding as to why those events took place,  It seems we humans so want to divvy the world up into clean little packages that fit neatly together.  But in reality, each package seeps into the next, affects the next.  And the pile forever shifts.
And the pile forever shifts.  Therein lies the strength of the novel and the protagonist Aslaug.  The constant shifting.   

Madapple is a clever, tightly woven story.  Meldrum is clearly deserving of the William C. Morris debut award for this novel. She is a strong writer in that she told a well crafted story very patiently without wasting a word.  I highly recommend it; it should be on your middle school bookcase or in your libraries

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