by H. M. Bouwman
cover illustration by Nicoletta Ceccoli
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008.
Lucy is the Colay girl, above left. Snowcap is the Anglish girl, below right. Both are absolutely horrid little girls. Well, I guess they are not little at age 12. Horrid tween-agers? The point is, is that for our Protagonist and Deuteragonist they are not the usual sort of heroines on adventure in a middle-school novel. And it is wonderful. Absolutely brilliant!
I’d mentioned the other day a desire to start browsing books by illustrator as a sort of experiment. I had remarked that I was two for two on books illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli. We can now make that three for three.
I admit that the cover illustrator was not the sole reason for reading the book. I also read the dust jacket/summary:
Set on fictional islands off northeast America in 1787, this story features two twelve-year-old girls from different cultures–one a native islander and one English–who join forces on a journey to save themselves, their people, and one special baby. It is part historical (based on convicts who were sent to the Americas before the Revolutionary War and Australia’s history) and part fantasy (the land holds magical properties). Above all, it’s a captivating adventure in the tradition of The Princess Bride–with shipwrecks, curses, chases, murder plots, kidnapping, rebellion, narrow escapes, magic (of all kinds), romantic legends, thieves and politicians (sometimes both), a caring schoolteacher and a handsome horse groom, a pair of feisty (sometimes difficult) heroines, and the mysterious power of storytelling at its center!
The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap is a richly imagined story by a remarkable new author.
I haven’t seen word of any new books by this “remarkable new author” Heather M. Bouwman, but I feel that if she were to continue her course, she would quick join the shelves of Frances Hardinge and Gail Carson Levine fans. The comparisons would be made in the constancy of their characterizations. And perhaps, the vocabularies. Do love the presence of the word Oubliette (84).
Lucy and Snowcap are not likable girls. While they have suffered in many ways similar to other heroines of other similar adventure stories, these girls take different track–a wholly believable one. They become pains in the as backside of their respective villages/towns.
Lucy is a plain talking sort, and “if people call me names, I’ll glare” (4). She hasn’t any friends. Her only sometime playmates, her twin cousins, were turned to stone with all the other males of the Colay Islanders. Her demeanor hardens after the loss of her father to stone, and solidifies when the midwife has her carry her newly born brother to the stone gardens where he would turn as well. No, I’m not making excuses, as the author (refreshingly) does not.
Snowcap is the greater wretch of the two. “Why, within the last week alone she had been exquisitely and forcefully nasty to quite a few people” (90). A list numbering to 8 follows, but more than 8 people are referenced.
“You think I’m dull?” Snowcap’s head felt like it were going to explode. her hands curled into fists. “No. But predictable. For instance, when I saw you comin’ just now, I knew you’d be yelpin’. And next, you’re thinkin’ how hard to pummel me and of nasty things to say about my kin. Right?” Snowcap punched him, called his mother a ferret, and ran off” (193).
And this to Adam, the only person to count on caring about her since her parents were murdered. Needless to say she doesn’t have any friends either. (I kept picturing Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)).
The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap is a journey story. Though it has a “captivating adventure” I disagree that its “above all.” The last lines before The End on page 265 exclaim the “above all” of the story, and though blatantly stated, you can figure it out well before then. For all the adventures, scrapes and twists, the Tale is focused. Everyone can change. And not without help, or even without reason for that matter; and often the change is unbidden however necessary. All the characters (to include the Islands) undergo, or have undergone change due to the various impetuses that create Change. Reality is met and choices have to be made.
You have a story where convicts from England en route to be sold in Virginia as indentured servants shipwreck. They find already inhabited islands and declare them a colony for England. You populate the story with a few hapless, a few hardened, a few family-bred criminals. Then you add two girls who are anything but selfless and endearing. This is a brilliant setting for illustrating Change.
Lucy and Snowcap our “feisty” heroines do not change into “sometimes difficult” until closer the end. And the author doesn’t let them off the hook by making it easy. Their motivations for the individual ventures are not wholly selfless, and when they get together they are as awful to each other as anyone else. Philip and Adam catch up to Snowcap and Lucy. “Snowcap snorted loudly. “She’s so stubborn; there’s no reasoning with her.” Philip and Adam exchange a look, and Adam murmured, “Oh? That’s some justice.” (183). Still, they do begin to try to be civil and compassionate. And they come to find that they can still be true to themselves while doing so–actually they are more than true in nature. It really is nicely done.
From “A Timeline of the English in Tathenland” (xiii): “Oh, dear. The story needs far more detail than an outline can lend. It is a story, after all, and it should be told like one.” Thus, the story begins properly, narrated by at third person omniscient. The narration revolves around four characters, Lucy, Snowcap, Philip (the Tutor), and Adam (the Horse Groom). However, the chapters do not exactly alternate, but rely on a more intuitive progression of a storyteller.
So, alongside the promise of a Journey that will harbor change agents, interwoven is the preoccupation with Storytelling and Recorded History. The Colay have a culture of oral history, stories told seasonally or occasionally, and others specifically. “History is in the mouths of the people who tell it. […] Whoever tells the story controls it. Whoever knows the story of their own past possesses something as important as–as children” (74). The conversational setting is the misrepresentation of the Colay people and the events of 12 years ago (when the Anglish came) and those of more recent (the murder of the Anglish Governor and his wife). Philip who is among the minute number of literate convicts aspires to be a Great Author. He decides a good beginning may be in the recording of the Anglish History on the islands. His efforts are recorded only to be followed with derision and correction by the narrator, “He retold the story [of The Rebellion]–even though it was, at best, insipid palaver, and mostly a pack of lies from start to finish” (88). You can guess which tradition the story favors (even though it is written and bound). Fortunately Philip has his epiphany.
The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap makes a strong case for the importance of Story and the necessity for Stories to be exchanged between individuals and peoples. They have a transformative power. They provide insight and perspective. They can be unifying. Stories, even those in songs, can become interchangeable, shared personal experiences–owned by everyone and no one.
As [Snowcap] sang, she once again wondered who the singer in the meadow had been and from where the song had come. Somehow the words were melding with a song her mother had taught her. They weren’t quite right anymore. […] Snowcap kept singing the songs over and over, weaving them together, until they finally became one song (175).
Writing a story about story is a tricky thing, often dangerous, and seemingly unavoidable to many (how many novels have an author or dabbler or journalist in the leading role?). I am not sure about the results of the exploration in Bouwman’s novel. What evidence is necessary to validate one story over another if ever they happen to contradict? Truth in numbers? Truth in intuitive human essences?… It is a children’s book, L.
There is the Fantasy that keeps this from a historical fiction. Verified by the “Afterword: Author Note on History”, “Tathenland does not exist on any map, nor are there any written histories of it” (266). Its themes have a strong ring of familiarity just the same. The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap is a tale; a tale with its prerogative, “Everyone can transform, everyone can change. Everyone” (265). And like Snowcap we know “that these tales (like many stories) might be somewhat exaggerated, but she also firmly believed that they were founded on nuggets of truth” (94). Of course, what is truth and the extent of any exaggeration is challenged by magical stories that are less exaggerated than first imagined (the pups, the ravisher and the maiden). Just as the praise for this novel was less exaggerated than first imagined (I mean intoning the cult brilliance of The Princess Bride?), but Bouwman’s The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap really is “a richly imagined story by a remarkable new author.”