Friday, June 22, 2007

General Fiction, Sharon Creech

Review for Chasing Redbird, by Sharon Creech: (kidslit)

I think I like Chasing Redbird even better than Creech's award-winning Walk Two Moons. In this book, Zinnia Taylor discovers an old, overgrown hiking trail in the woods behind her Kentucky farmhouse, and decides to restore it. As she digs up the 20-mile long path, camping out by herself, she has time to uncover her own unacknowledged emotions--about the recent death of her aunt, about forgotten memories of her cousin, Rose, and of her current troubles with Jake Boone, who keeps giving her gifts. Zinny progresses along the trail and slowly learns to overcome some of her own guilt, to speak out more (instead of being drowned out by her loud family), and to separate her own identity from that of Rose, who was the same age as her but died at four years old.

Zinny narrates the novel, and she is a wonderful character. Though quiet to the point of absurdity, what goes on inside her mind reveals to the reader real maturity, depth, and a great sense of humor. She's quirky in the way that all of Creech's characters are, but she's particularly unique in her single-mindedness. Once she determines to do something or feel a certain way, she can't stop or change course. I loved watching her go, as well as being privy to her thought-provoking insights and her struggles with loss and guilt.

Everything about this novel hits the right note. The Taylor family dynamic is clearly healthy, but it's easy to see why Zinny feels overlooked and turns to her aunt and uncle as parents. The connection between Rose and Zinnia is haunting but wonderful at the same time. Creech's quirkiness as a writer always redeems itself with deeper meanings. For example, Aunt Jessie has a wall hanging that says "Life is a bowl of spaghetti- every now and then you get a meatball." Creech, via Zinny, reworks this simple, almost silly metaphor up, down and sideways, drawing insight from it that never would have occurred to me. Then there's Jake, a thief who gets more endearing with everything he steals to give to Zinny. Or Zinny's squabbles with her sisters--though their rivalries are small and thoughtless, the hurt each of the girls feel is undeniable and cutting. The book has ghosts, strange sayings, really funny scenes, and erratic chapter lengths, but every element works, and they all work together to form a cohesive picture of Zinny's life and mind, and of this one summer that truly changes her life.

I usually offer a bit of critique at this point of the review, but there's not much to say. I suppose that Uncle Nate, Zinny's father figure, needed to be developed more. I was left with the impression that Zinny was closer to Aunt Jessie than to him, which she denies. It wasn't a big deal because, well, he was alive and Jessie was dead, and this book is essentially about death. The same thing goes for her parents; clearly they are saddened because Zinny is closer to Nate and Jessie than to them, but this is never worked out or discussed in any way.

But none of this means that Chasing Redbird is anything short of brilliant. The characters are beautiful, the story is intriguing, Zinny's voice is irresistible, and Creech deals with some seriously heavy questions as only kidslit authors can. As Zinny wonders about death and responsibility, relationships, attachments to people and things, fear, and grief, she fulfills one of literature's most important functions: the act of putting age-old, universal questions in a unique and interesting light. Creech doesn't often venture answers to the questions, but the way she poses them helps us do so for ourselves.

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