Monday, January 21, 2008

The Braid (in all its permutations)

I wrote one of my local history pieces not too long ago about a family forced off their land in Scotland who eventually made their was to the west coast. With that era of history on my mind, plus my love of Cape Breton and interest in verse novels, I was primed, ready and eager to read The Braid by Helen Frost.

It's 1850 and The Highland Clearances are forcing people off the land. The landlords have decided it's more profitable to raise sheep than to collect rents from tenants. Sisters Jeannie and Sarah, along with their family, are being forced off their land on the Isle of Barra. They are due to sail to Canada (destined for Cape Breton) in a few days. The night before they are to leave, the sisters weave their hair together in a braid and then curl up to sleep. When Jeannie awakes, she sees that Sarah has cut off the braid and left half for her sister. As we will learn, Sarah has gone to stay with her grandmother on a nearby island, rather than take the voyage to Canada. With this scene, we have the first braid.

But there are more. In The Braid, Frost alternates narrative poems by Sarah and Jeannie. In between each narrative poem, is a praise poem, which praises something in the narrative. We see the girls' lives unfold, the tragedies and sadness, but also moments of hope and joy. All of the family except Jeannie, brother William, and their mother, die on the journey to Canada and they arrive with nothing. Back in Scotland, Sarah goes to live with her grandmother, on the nearby island of Mingulay, where life is also hardscrabble but, for now at least, they can stay on the land.

For those intrigued, a bit of Googling will find more of the plot laid out for you, but I think it's better to let it unfold as you read. There was also a huge surprise for me at the end, which made it all the better. SPOILER -- if you plan to read this book, don't read on.

Frost has taken the metaphor of a braid, and Celtic knots, to make literal braids through the story with her poetry techniques. First, the praise poems are braided horizontally. so, the last line of one praise poem is braided into the first line of the next praise poem.

So, for example, the last line of Mussels is: white inside, shining like the sun. The first line of the next praise poem, Hair, is: white, shining in the sun, Grandma's/hair winds round her head, a braid,....

Then, the longer narrative poems are braided vertically. The last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words of each line in the following narrative poem (sometimes slightly varied). Here's one line of The Braid: Willie fussed, and wouldn't go to sleep. It was late, we were/ and the corresponding line of After Three Days: Were they angry? Could they understand how this place holds me, so/.... the end of the story, when Jeannie is weaving a braid, images and words from the first two narrative poems, as well as the subjects of all of the praise poems, are woven into the lines of the last two narrative poems.

But wait, there's even more! Each line of the narrative poems has the same number of syllables as the narrator's age. When Jeannie is fourteen, each line has fourteen syllables and so on. Finally, each praise poem is composed of eight lines, each with eight syllables.

So, having read all this you may be wondering, Is this a gimmic? I doubt it, and if so, what a HUGE amount of work to go to in order to pull it off. The story is a solid one -- it is solidly grounded in historical fact with enough tension and passion created for the characters to pull you along. I enjoy historical fiction and poetry, so it was a shoe-in for me. When I finished it and clued in (duh) to the intricate style I just wanted to read it over again.

I have one small quibble. In Sarah's narrative poem Such Immense Love, Sarah and Murdo are out on the cliffs of Mingulay where they are wont to wander. After I read this: Waves crashed onto the cliffs below us, and we -- kissed./In love, they say, as if love is a place you enter-- as if we/ slice open time and find a whole new island inside one moment./I'm shaken by the strength of this. Does what we did together mean/I'm going to have a child? Why did no one warn me?... Okay, so I read that and figured that Sarah, like so many other girls through history who have no knowledge of sex, assumed that kissing meant you could get pregnant. But, no, as we learn, "what we did together" was actually having sex. When I later learned she's pregnant, I went, Hey, wait a minute, and had to go back and re-read this passage. Did I miss something? Obviously. This "loss of virginity passage" was just a little too vague and cagey for moi. Overall, a small quibble, however, in a very enjoyable, and ambitious, verse novel.

You can read some more reviews here, from Fuse #8 and here's an interview with Frost from School Library Journal. The author also has some great links about the location, the history, the book (including review excerpts) on her website.

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