Helen Frost’s The Braid

Posted: October 25, 2008 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Helen Frost, verse

Frost, Helen.  The Braid.  New York: Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus, 2006.

The book consists of a series of “poems”–or, I guess, would-be poems, for I fail to see much in the way of what I would personally consider poetry in them.  The language isn’t terribly distinguished or even all that interesting in and for itself (i.e., as separate from what it describes–and it certainly doesn’t give me the sense that what it describes is worth hearing about because of the way the language captures it), and there’s no intensity of perception, no sense of something specifically caught and understood by means of a very specific choice of words.  It’s basically just the narratives of two girls alternating with each other) as they describe and respond to their experiences, in poems with lines so long that they almost fill the page as much as a block of prose would–and they have no obvious rhythmic patterning, etc., so it’s hard to understand how exactly it is they’re not prose.

That’s where the author’s “notes on form” become relevant.  she explains that “The last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words in each line in the following narrative poem, sometimes in a slightly different form.” Meanwhile, between the narrative poems are what she calls “praise poems,” shorter ones that look more like conventional lyric poems of our time, (and I have to say, rather tiredly conventional ones in both imagery and sentiment) “each of which praises something named in the narrative poems,” and “The last line of one praise poem is braided into the first line of the next praise poem.” So there’s a lot of complex organizing going on here, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about Yeats saying,

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

And I would, if I thought the end result worked.  But it doesn’t in fact seem a moment’s thought, but instead rather laboured–and weirdly, in the endnotes, calling attention to its organizational principles in a way that does for me make the stitching and unstitching naught.  It’s like a giant Lego model of a roller coaster, the kind you look at at wonder at all the effort that went into it and yet you can’t actually take a ride on it.  It’s just intricate organization for its own sake (although here it does claim a purpose, although for me not persuasively–more about that later).  In being fussily over-contrived, though, and once I’ve had my attention drawn to the contrivance, I find it distracts attention from whatever there is of a story.

The story is about a Scottish family in 1850, who emigrate to Cape Breton in Canada after being forced off their land.  But one sister can’t bear to leave and stays behind, and so we have the two separated and thinking across the miles of each other, connected only by the braid of their intertwined hair each has half of.   The text itself is clearly then an attempt to weave a similar braid, in that it makes connections between events in the lives of each of the sisters that the other knows nothing about.  It is, in other words, an artificial contrivance that is supposed to reveal a connection between the two sisters despite distance–a connection they don’t and can’t actually have anymore.  And the extent to which it remains a contrivance implies the extent to which the book tries but fails to be upbeat about the situation of these girls forever apart from each other.  Despite physical distance, despite all the evidence, they are still, the book insists, somehow connected with each other–because look how they share diction and metaphors! (Not that they themselves know about the metaphors, so it’s only readers who get this imagined happy ending.)  It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, then, imposed against logic on material that has to be clumsily manipulated to allow it.

As a set of alternating narratives, then, this book represents a common use of that form: a perception of connection between two quite separate and different stories that can emerge from a reader’s knowledge of both stories, knowledge that neither of the characters in the alternating narratives possesses.   It’s an ideal form for interweaving–or, I guess, “braiding,” two separate threads of plot in ways that make two stories into a third more complex story.

Here, however, we have a story of immigration in which a family is in fact forever divided and its two separate parts out of contact with each other.  Imagining a connection beyond that is just sentimental hope triumphing over bleak but inevitable reason–and ignoring one of the central truths of the immigrant experience across history, that when you leave you leave things you love behind, forever.  I guess it’s that sentimental insistence that love conquers all even when you’re never going to see the one you love again that I most dislike here–it makes light of the harsh facts of the lives of most immigrants, and the bravery of accepting actual separation.  There’s even a nigh-unto-impossible coincidence of the man the girl who stayed behind loves, forced to go across the Atlantic himself, running into the other sister and them being able to come back home again and thus being able to bring news in both directions.   What are the odds?

While Frost calls her longer pieces “narrative poems,” and while they do sort of tell the stories of these two sisters, the novel doesn’t actually feel like much of a narrative.  It certainly isn’t, as a whole, a narrative poem, because each of the pieces is built around a discreet emtoion-driven episode, so much so that the whole seems quite disjointed.  The focus is on small perceptions and insights, not on what happens next.  Despite efforts to join the episodes together by means of the line-braiding and all, each one remains distinct, and the connections exist more on a symbolic level than on any narrative one.   There’s little sense of a plot-driven thrust forward through the whole, and by and large, the alternating between narratives creates little in the way of suspense or, for me, interest.   It’s more like a series of moments captured but unconnected except by the organizational contrivances than like the moment-leading-to-moment that is the basic thrust of narrative.

There are many novels for young people with alternating narratives that allow for actual moves from isolation to connection, from distance to togetherness.  Among the ones I’ve read, in totally random order, are Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, Schwarz’s Initiation, McDonald’s Swallowing Stones, Creech’s The Wanderer, Oates’s Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door, Swindell’s Abomination, Browne’s Hunted, Wilson’s Secrets,  Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World, Barnes’ Killing Aurora,  Metzenthen’s Boys of Blood and Bone,Fitch’s The Gravesavers, Heneghan’s Promises to Come, Katz’s False Face, Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s Out of the Dark, Hughes’s Log Jam, Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Watts’ Flower, Doherty’s Dear Nobody, Chambers’s Postcards from No Man’s Land, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy Van Draanen’s Flipped, Woodsons If You Come Softly Peterson and Ruckman’s rob&sara.com Cohn and Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rapp’s 33 Snowfish, Huser’s Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen, Flinn’s Fade to Black, Baker’s Up Molasses Mountain,  Caswell’s Double Exposure, Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence, Katz’s The Third Magic , Brooks’s Mistik Lake, Flesichman’s Seedfolk, Flesichman’s Seek, Klause’s The Silver Kiss, Browne’s Warriors of Alavna, Ellis and Walters’s Bifocal, Ure’s Come Lucky April, Harrison’s Facing the Dark, Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Dyer’s Ms. Zephyr’s Notebook, Farmer’s Thicker than Water, Nilsson’s You & You & You, Katz’s Sun God, Moon Witch, Jones’s Deep Secret, Hughes’s The Maze, Juby’s Another Kind of Cowboy, Stone’s A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Draper’s Copper Sun.  This book is different from most if not all of these in that it purports to make that move without actually allowing the characters to make it.  The two threads or isolated characters don’t actually come to intertwine, they only do it symbolically.  They would be unlikely, of course to have made it back together again historically in the context of a story of immigration–which might be why more typical immigrant stories with alternating narratives alternate between characters who meet in the new land.  But it’s the wish-fulfilment aspect of the implied symbolic connection of people sundered by history that’s most noteworthy, and to me, most unconvincing, here.

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Comments
  1. rebecca says:

    Curious: have you read Ellen Hopkins’ Identical?

  2. pernodel says:

    No, I haven’t. Should I?

  3. rebecca says:

    Yes, I think it would make a fascinating contribution to your project. It has a particular aspect that may not have come up in your project so far. I’m reluctant to say what that element is, because I think it would be most meaningful when read from the text itself; but if you’d rather know my opinion about how it might or might not fit into your project, I’d be happy to say more.

  4. pernodel says:

    Thanks, Rebecca–I’ll order myself a copy.

  5. […] appear to be free of verse   But here, as in Helen Frost’s The Braid, which I discussed in an earlier post, the ickily prosaic descriptions of a so-typical-it’s-stereotyped teenager’s stream of […]

  6. […] the so-called poetry that’s so fashionable in novels for young people these days (see also: The Braid and Beating Heart.  These pieces in The Master’s Apprentice just read like personal musings, […]

  7. […] are no characters in this novel (by the Helen Frost who wrote The Braid, discussed here in a previous entry) and in fact, really, no plot.  It consists of a series of poems in traditional forms, mostly […]

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