After the cover illustration captured my attention I noticed David Almonds name on it. I hugged the book to me before I cracked the cover open. You should know that David Almond is a magician, and so is Levi Pinfold. If you’ve a love for Shaun Tan’s work, you’ll buy this one.
Candlewick, 2018. Hardcover Picture book, 32 pages. Ages 4-10.
David Almond tells a story told to him and it’s based on true events. The dam in the book is the dam that created Kielder Water in Northumberland, England. The folk musicians, the man and his daughter are not only characters in a tradition of handing along stories from one generation to another, but they are folk legends Mike and Katheryn Tickell, the people in the story Almond was told.
The story unfolds as a father wakes his daughter and takes her and her fiddle into a valley. They remember together the people they saw sing, and play instruments, and dance in this now abandoned place, boarded up and waiting for the water to cover it.
They enter every house and while Kathryn plays, he sings and dances, “They filled the houses with music.” All of nature would hear it, and remember. “Behind the dam, within the water, the music stays, will never be gone.” They hear it still, moving in and around and within them.
The Dam is really just a picture book you have to experience. Almond’s text is a poem, a song that guides you through a memory that engages the senses and deepens feeling. There is a sadness, and a hope; a joy of remembering what’s past, a grief, and a comfort in knowing it can’t leave you.
The compositions are guided by an equally sure hand. The sepia tones are appropriate for the early rising and fog, but also for the past. The wisps of ghosts look ancient (not favoring the detail of a particular history). But the figures of the man and girl are realistic, as are the renderings of folk remembered. Light of day brings color, which happens to coincide with the enlivening of the abandoned homes with music. The day closes with darker tones and the rise of the water.
And then a new day that relays the sensation of the present, the field now with pink flowers, and a day less still and weaving new memories amidst the old.
I was drawn in from the very start and upon review I notice the images on her bedroom wall. I think how she rests there, and he pauses before disrupting her. Then comes a page with small panels of images. I want to find someone to read the facing page to me so I can hear the words as I study the images. You’ll want to hold onto them, but it may be difficult when you turn the page. The double-page spread captures an expanse of the nearly finished dam that will stop your heart—in awe and horror.
I was also struck by the page of text facing Pinfold’s illustrations of the rising water:
This was sealed.
The water rose.
This was drowned.
The lake is beautiful.
“This was drowned./The lake is beautiful,” and it is. It’s “satin” and “fertile”—but such observations only come after the author tells us, “the music stays,/will never be gone.”
The Dam acknowledges the devastation and a transcendence, of barriers created and those that cannot contain such a thing as music and dreaming. Listed among the things of nature that heard Kathryn’s music, there at the end: “the ghosts heard.”
There is a timelessness to the words and pictures that reflect the wisdom the story imparts. The emotions they evoke feel ancient. The Dam feels like a finely-crafted folk song; firmly rooted in a place, it still manages to resonate all the way over here.
A story for musicians, historians, and artists.
The Dam made me think of Heima (2007) where Icelandic band Sigur Rós tours their country playing at various venues (one site they visit is a dam); but it is about a music inspired by a country and its people/history.