I picked up Crossing Stones by Helen Frost from the new YA fiction shelf at the library. I’m sure it was the cover illustration that caught my eye–this is just the type of book that would appeal to me if I were to judge it solely by its cover. When I opened it up and saw that it was a novel written in verse format, I almost put it back. I’m glad I didn’t, though.
Crossing Stones is a lovely story of loss and healing set during World War I. Muriel Jorgenson is a school girl on the brink of womanhood at the beginning of the story. She is in her last year of high school, and she frequently has run-ins with her teacher due to her outspokenness concerning things like women’s rights and the war that is brewing in Europe. However, she is a well-loved daughter and sister to two younger siblings: Ollie, just a couple years younger than she, and Grace, a whole decade or so younger. Also important in her world are her neighbors, the Normans. Especially important is Frank Norman, her age-mate and friend. Their world, though, is about to change with the entrance of the U.S. into World War I. Frank, of course, joins up. The Jorgensons and the Normans have to figure out how to reconfigure their lives with the absence of Frank, especially since the families are so close and the children of both families frequently help the other family with chores, etc., and they constantly cross the creek that separates their properties to visit or work. The next blow is that Ollie joins up, too, by lying about his age. Tragedy follows, of course, and the Jorgensons and Normans have to figure out how to reconfigure their lives with more permanent losses.
This book is not just about the war. In fact, it almost provides a cross-section of life in the U.S. during this time period, with its triumvirate of tragedies and controversy: in addition to World War I, the influenza epidemic and the women’s suffrage movement figure into the story very prominently. This almost seems like it’s too much content for one smallish book, but given the characters involved and the format of the story, it works well.
The format is really what makes this book unique and better than a simple synopsis could possibly make it sound. First of all, the poems which make up this novel are anything but simple, although I did not realize their complexity until I read the author’s note at the end of the story. All of the poems are concrete poems and some of them are cupped hand sonnets, something I’d never even heard of before I read this book. That a writer could write such a finely tuned novel while using these particular formats is amazing to me. Although I don’t think the characterization is as fully-realized in this novel as it could have been if it were written in prose, the poetic imagery and tone more than make up for this perceived shallowness.
If you like historical fiction peopled by a strong female protagonist and others who survive hard things, you would enjoy this book. If you like a pretty turn of phrase, you would enjoy this book. Here’s a passage I marked that exemplifies the type of imagery that fills this book:
Maybe you won’t rock a cradle, Muriel.
Some women seem to prefer to rock a boat.
She speaks gently, thoughtfully; there’s truth
in what she sees and says. But her words sting
like yellow jackets flying from a nest I don’t
know is there until I step right into it.
(I could not preserve the shape of the poem with my limited knowledge of formatting on my blog, but imagine, if you will, that the lines of this poem form a gentle curve, much like the course of a gently meandering creek.)
It looks like I’m going to have to change my opinion of novels in verse form. I’ve only read a few, but I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve delved into. (Reaching for Sun is another such novel I read, enjoyed, and blogged .)