Monday, January 20, 2014

Salt by Helen Frost

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost is a verse novel set in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the fall of 1812.

James is a young American settler living near Fort Wayne. His father runs the trading post there. Anikwa is a Native American boy living with his family in a nearby village. The two boys play, hunt, and fish together, and the families are on friendly terms and trade for the things they need -- salt to cure the meat Anikwa's family hunts, moccasins for James, which he finds more comfortable than the stiff boots his friends wear. But war is coming. Neither James' family nor the Miami tribe want to fight, but they may not have a choice when troops of British and American soldiers are pouring into the area, and nearby tribes have made agreements with the British that they will fight with them in exchange for land rights. Can James and Anikwa's friendship survive the turmoil of war?

I find stories like this bittersweet, since we all know where the story goes from here for Anikwa's people. I felt the sensitive cultural details were handled better in this book than in some, though the scant text of a verse novel leaves little room for any kind of description, context, or development. Perhaps the verse format is my largest issue with this book: I have read many verse novels, but few stand out as exemplary either as verse or as novels. I often feel constricted by the format, or frustrated at the sparseness of the text. Many times it just seems like chopped-up prose, and though there were a few pages where I felt that the format of this book worked, in most cases it was just an interesting visual effect. The author has chosen to arrange Anikwa's segments of the story in an undulating pattern resembling Miami ribbonwork, while James' lines run in stripes across the page -- my initial thought was that it was meant to bring to mind a log cabin, but the author's note indicated that it's meant to represent the stripes of the American flag. I did enjoy reading this book, don't get me wrong -- I'm just not sold on the format, which I think undercuts some of what the author is trying to accomplish in this story. However, readers who enjoy verse novels in general might find this one worth a look.

I'm attending a seminar later this week where this book will be one of the titles up for discussion, and it promises to be an interesting talk.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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