Saturday, July 3, 2010

Head over heels

Frances O'Roark Dowell's Chicken Boy is one of those audiobooks that has stuck with me over the years, so when I spied -- from my library's meagre new audio offerings [but that's another story] -- her latest novel, Falling In, I dipped right into it. On the surface, it seems dramatically different from her other books -- as it involves changelings, witches and herbal healing, but when I think about it, the novel reflects themes of otherness and belonging that I've noticed in the other Dowell's titles I've read and enjoyed.

Isabelle Bean is a sixth grader who has never fit in. She's a loner who'd rather explore a thrift store than hang out at the mall. She doesn't pay much attention in class and isn't at all close with her single mother. Isabelle's a reader, and has long believed that she is a changeling -- the fairy replacement of a human child snatched from her cradle. Lately, she's been hearing a buzzing sound that no one else has noticed and -- during a visit to the nurse's office one day at school -- follows the buzzing inside the supply closet and tumbles into an alternative world.

In this vaguely medieval world, she discovers that the Witch of the Wood has been terrorizing children for 50 years -- insisting that the small villages turn over a child or two on a rotating basis, in exchange for the witch's child who died at their hands. The villages send their children off to place of safety, and Isabelle meets some of these kids as they are making their way to these camps. Initially -- wearing her red boots -- she is mistaken for the witch, but once she sets the children straight she doesn't follow them to the sanctuary, but walks the other way -- thinking that she'd very much like to meet a witch.

The novel is told by a very omniscient narrator, one who pipes in regularly with her own thoughts and opinions about Isabelle's adventures. She speaks directly to the reader, and is occasionally cranky as she anticipates the reader's complaints about how the story is going. It's this format that makes it such a natural for audio. Falling In is read by Jessica Almasy (here's an interview with the author of another book she recently narrated), who -- as a narrator -- is familiar to me, but I was surprised to realize that I have never listened to her.

She is pretty good here, nailing the right tone of omniscience for her snarky narrator. She's sounds youthful enough to portray the many children in the story, and she works very hard to differentiate the main characters. She gives many of the children from the magical world a pretty wobbly English accent, but now that I don't have to worry about such things, I didn't find it bothersome. Her portrayal of Isabelle clued us into her intelligence and loneliness and I liked that. If she relied a little too much on quavery to give us Grete -- who might possibly be a witch -- I was wrapped up enough in the story and Almasy's humorous narration that I could accept this. Over all, it's a brief, fun listen.

I may not have been giving this story my full attention, but I didn't really understand the whole hiding-away-from-the-witch-in-camps aspect of the novel. Surely someone in the past 50 years had realized that she hadn't taken a bite of one child in all that time, or conversely, what was to stop Grete from pursuing the children to their camps? Those are just quibbles, really.

Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Narrated by Jessica Almasy
Recorded Books, 2010. 5:00 (unabridged)

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