Monday, March 6, 2017

The Wood

These woods are deadly, dark and deep
And they have many paths they keep...

Forgive me, Robert Frost. I could not help but run through Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening and mixing up the words while reading Chelsea Bobulski's upcoming YA novel The Wood. Much like Frost's iconic dark woods, the grove of this novel has a mysterious allure that may be deadly. At least, my teacher enforced a more macabre reading of "Woods."


Of late, I have been skeptical of YA time-travel novels--and any novels dealing with temporal jaunts in general. Although it received accolades and a movie deal, I did not like Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (which I suppose is technically a multiverse novel, but tomato, tomahtoe). I got about two chapters into Gwen Cole's Cold Summer before I started falling asleep because I didn't care at all. Into the Dim was a particular grade of Not Good. Granted, I've not yet read Passenger by Alex Bracken or The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig. I am saving them for an epically cranky reading period.


So, to my complete surprise, I enjoyed The Wood. I haven't heard it hyped at all, which is an awful shame.  Somehow, Bobulski manages to make this book a fantasy with a sweet love story and totally nail one of my favorite tropes, the fish-out-of-water. In this case, a boy out of time. I do have one quibble, which I'll bring up at the end of my review.

For centuries, the Council of Old Ones, a race of immortals (okay, they are basically fae. If you just think of them as fae, it works) have monitored a unique phenomenon on Earth. At certain times and in certain places, doors, or thresholds, to other time periods open. They're not actually physical doors, but basically wormholes. A Mongol warrior might be riding his pony across the steppes and accidentally gallop through one of these temporal disturbances and find himself in 21st century America. Or in India. If these travelers were to explore this new world and then take that knowledge back with them, standard time travel consequences apply.  You know, the space-time continuum implodes and all that good stuff.

But the Old Ones need human assistance, so they make pacts with ten human families to be keepers of the wood, since the thresholds always manifest in a wood.  This guardianship is a birthright and ties each family to a particular spot of land for all time.  To be honest, that is a definite bummer, but on the flip side, you get to meet people from all different times and places and study awesome things like ancient Greek and middle English and history!  I might be the only person excited about those things.  But I know all the liberal arts majors feel me on this one.

Winter Parish is the next keeper of the wood outside of her home.  Her father had been training her for this her entire life ... until his disappearance almost two years ago.  The official investigation concluded that he walked off of the path in the woods, but Winter knows that's impossible.  Guardians cannot walk off the path--and even if they wanted to, it would mean certain doom.

These woods are lovely, true--but also dark and deep, with an emphasis on "dark."  Although perfectly safe(ish) during the day, all humans have to be out before sundown.  The wood has two faces: the normal trees-and-bushes-and-leaves appearance of daytime, and the creeping horrors, strangling vines, and quicksand mud of nighttime.  At night, the wood happily devours anyone hapless enough to be caught in it.

But Winter knows the rules, because her dad taught them to her. And she knows, without a doubt, that he would never leave them by purposefully stepping off of the path.  Something else happened, and she won't stop walking the paths of the wood until she finds her father again.

One day, a young man pops up in the wood.  Unlike other travelers, he knows exactly where he is and why he got there.  In fact, he intended to walk through a threshold and into another time.  Frightened by his knowledge and furious at his lord of the manor airs, Winter rather forcibly escorts the young British peer back through the proper door.  Thankfully, as a guardian, Winter has some extraordinary tools at her disposal, like these magical fireflies that make everyone say "Oooh, how pretty!  Ha ha!  How are you fighting me with fireflies!" until they are literally burned with their fire.  The fireflies obey Winter's commands and herd people around, burning them if they are not compliant.  I think that's pretty cool, actually.

Except he turns up again the next day and refuses to leave.  He's like a time traveling squatter, only very handsome and very persuasive.  This young man, from Brightonshire (AKA East and West Sussex, but that's rather hard to turn into a sobriquet, so Brightonshire it is) in 1783, knows far too much about thresholds and what they do.  It turns out that two members of the Council are missing, and they are Brightonshire's adoptive parents. He snuck into their library and educated himself about using the thresholds, and he wants his parents back.

But there's another problem--the wood seems to be rotting from the inside. It's turning dark and nasty and bloodthirsty, even during the day, when it's supposed to be safe. Is it true that Varo, the power-hungry and treacherous renegade, has returned? And what will the Council do to Winter when they discover that she has allowed a traveler to remain in a time period not his own?

Brightonshire getting used to the marvels of the 21st century actually provides some good comic relief without getting too silly. He's fascinated by zippers and drawstrings and showers--things that we probably take for granted. The romance between him and Winter is sweet without being too full of angst, and the ending hits the right notes.

Some of the plot points felt superfluous, like Winter's inability to succeed in school since she has to keep running off to the wood to shepherd erring travelers back into their own time, or her fading friendship with Meredith. I understand that the author was trying to create tension by opposing Winter's modern life with the very archaic role that she plays, but it really wasn't needed.  Brightonshire, his parents' kidnapping, and the infection of the wood provided enough material.

My biggest complaint about The Wood hinges on the explanation Winter receives from her father as to how her family became tied to this land and this arcane job. He tells her,
"One of our ancestors journeyed to America when he heard of a particular patch of trees in the Northwest Territory, a piece of land the Native Americans called sacred and the settlers called cursed, where people went in and never came back out."
Okay, there are several things wrong with that statement.
  1. Why didn't the Council assign care of the wood to whichever Native nation was living in the area at the time?
  2. How does Winter's father justify the fact that the Native people are no longer there because of his family?
  3. Which nation was it, exactly?
  4. No really, I want to know.  I'm waiting ...
In just a few words, the author manages to paint Native people as the stereotypical uncivilized people, who have many superstitions instead of religion (since evidently white people don't think Native people have religious beliefs). In all the other countries where there are thresholds (India, Romania, and Nigeria are mentioned in the book), the guardians are native to that area. Except the American threshold. Hmm.

Winter recalls her Uncle Joe (neither actually her uncle nor actually a human) telling her of how guardians came to be:
"We chose people pure of heart, people who could be trusted. Their lineage would mark the passage of time inside the wood in a way our people, being immortal, never could ... Ten humans signed the Compact, binding their bloodlines to the wood. Each guarding became responsible for a different section of the wood, sections that the descendents of those guardians still patron today."
Okay ... so were the Native people living in the area of the wood in the American Northwest not "pure of heart" or trustworthy? Because by not giving guardianship to a Native family, that's what Joe is saying.

I don't think that the author intended any disrespect, but as a critical reader, I feel compelled to highlight this microaggression. The only way we become better writers and consumers of writing is to have frank discussions about things like Native erasure. Additionally, I read this as an ARC. I don't expect the author or the editor to get back in there and delete the offending paragraphs, or explain why Winter's family became the guardians, but I do recognize that anything in what I read is subject to change.

Am I saying you should not read or enjoy this book? No. Humans are capable of holding two opposing ideas in their head simultaneously--we can recognize the problematic aspects of an idea or a book or a film while admitting that it entertains us.

Overall, an extremely enjoyable book marred by moments of cultural insensitivity. My advice as a librarian: Use these opportunities to have a conversation.

I received an ARC of this title from the publisher.


2 comments:

  1. What, I wonder, would happen if some developer decided to cut down the wood? And build a new housing estate on it, or a shopping mall? Now, *that* would make an interesting story, with the guardian running around trying to stop it or, if it was already happening, somehow getting the time travellers back. Or there would be rumours of hauntings... Sounds more interesting than this story, sorry!

    I'm guessing the author didn't consider making a Native American guardian because she herself is not a Native American. For all the talk about the need for diversity in books, you just can't write from the viewpoint of someone from another background; that's appropriation. Perhaps it might have been better to set the story somewhere where the locals had been wiped out in one of those endless wars between whites and indigenous people, with the ancestors of the heroine turning up later.

    You never know, there might be a rewrite, it might be happening right now. I remember getting a review of one of my books which criticised something we had already fixed(not my fault, anyway, it was the layout) because the reviewer had received an ARC.

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    1. I think your solution for what happened to the Native people would be the most logical: there was a Native family, but they were victims of genocide, so the Old Ones had to find some new family to be keepers.

      I'm not even sure why I liked this as much as I did--maybe because it was kind of unabashedly simple and the fish out of water bit was super cute. I'm still surprised at myself.

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