3.5 rounding up to 4 because this book wasn’t written for old ladies like me with no juice left in their hearts.
it’s a sweetly sad middle grade novel about grief and the coping mechanisms and magical thinking we cling to in order to carry on living in the aftermath of devastating loss. and also, magical animals.
let’s be clear – i read this because of the fox on the cover, thinking it would be like Pax. and surface-level it is – it’s a sad book that involves a fox, but it didn’t do much for me, as a reader. which is fine – i’m not the target audience, and while there are middle grade books i love – books that i read as a child and have residual nostalgic feels for and others i’ve read as an adult, i’m not gonna respond to all of them here in the chilly autumn of my life.
it’s about two sisters: eleven-year-old jules and twelve-year-old sylvie, living in vermont, being raised by their father after their mother died from a complication of an undiagnosed heart defect when jules was only five.
Mostly what Jules remembered about her mother was the mustard jar, and how it had fallen from the bag of groceries that her mother was carrying and burst open at the foot of the porch steps, scattering pieces of yellow-smeared glass on the gravelly walk, and how her mother had said, “Oh!” in surprise just before she crumpled, her body folded in on itself.
jules is jealous of the way sylvie and her father have been able to hold on to memories of the woman they all loved, while jules only remembers that broken jar. she’s also jealous that sylvie resembles their red-headed mother, seeing it as one more connection she’s been denied. despite this jealousy, the sisters are close – they bicker, as sisters do, but they are always there for each other, sharing the rituals of wish rocks; stones upon which they write their burning wishes before tossing them into the slip, a dangerous oddity of the whippoorwill river:
According to Sam’s dad, who was a forest ranger, it was a freak of geology, the result of a seismic shift, a small earthquake that forced the river’s bed to disappear into a large cavern that was hiding there all along, opened up by the shifting earth. A hundred yards downstream it bubbled back up into the open air and formed a quiet pool before it remembered that it was a river and needed to ramble its way southward.
it is also one of their father’s DO NOTs – as in DO NOT go near the slip. but they do, often, to throw the stones holding their most precious wishes, which for sylvie is always “to run faster.” she’s already the star of the track team, but she is not satisfied – she wants to run fast as a comet, a stingray, a fireball, but she won’t tell jules why.
one snowy morning, waiting for the school bus to come, they make a little snow family before sylvie runs off down the path to throw in just one more wish before the bus arrives, despite jules’ insistence that she stay.
and sylvie never comes back.View Spoiler »this is all very early in the book, so i don’t know why the synopsis is playing all delicate and coy up there, saying sylvie went missing, when it’s pretty clear even in the synopsis what happened – as soon as sylvie goes missing, a fox cub is born with a connection to jules? we know what we’re dealing with here. but, i’ll play along. sylvie is “missing.” sure. « Hide Spoiler
from that point on, everything is After Sylvie, as jules desperately tries to set her world right again – trying to find the secret cavern that local lore claims has magical powers, trying to figure out why sylvie wanted to run so fast, trying to adjust to school and her father and the new shape of their family. she shares small poignant moments with her friend sam’s older brother, just back from serving overseas, where he also lost someone, and she begins a strange relationship with a fox who seems drawn to her for some reason, unafraid to approach her, giving her small gifts that are connected to sylvie. there are pov chapters from senna, the fox, but the bulk of the story is jules’.
and it’s a good story – well-written, with an authentic voice and a journey through the grieving process that isn’t cloying or melodramatic, but it just didn’t bore into me the way it probably would to someone with a more developed sense of readerly emotional response. or to its intended audience, whose feeling-parts haven’t yet turned into armor. i definitely felt a nice chill when sylvie’s running-wish motivation was revealed, and even though i saw the ending coming a mile away, it was executed well, and i wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to others. i’m just a little too removed from its charms to have more than a medium reaction to it.
and probably jealous that no fox has ever brought me anything.