Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

Not your typical tale. Of course, Lois Lowry and the word, typical, don't go hand-in-hand. Original... Great writer... Risk-taker... Those are words I associate with her. Pick your superlative. But typical? No way. This tale has more echoes of surrealism than realism with surprising juxtapositions of dreams and reality.

Littlest is being trained by Fastidious to bestow dreams on humans, and yes, the latter is hard-to-please. Littlest asks too many questions, plays, and is off-task when the two go out each night. Fastidious complains to the Ancient One that Littlest can touch things and absorb memories of humans, but she really is not ready to bestow dreams, a much more demanding job. Littlest is passed onto Thin Elderly, a wise and patient spirit-like being that is able to teach, The Bestowal, to her.

The two spirit-beings are in the home of a retired teacher who is in her 70s and has taken in John, an angry 8-year-old foster boy. The beings gather fragments of happy memories from objects around the house and then send them into the sleeping forms of John and the old woman. This gives the two happy dreams and allows them to face the world each day with strength. When the boy starts to recall the horrible abuse inflicted by his father the dreams turn to nightmares and hope turns to despair. Littlest learns, The Bestowal, and she and Thin Elderly fight to hold off The Horde, an evil group of steeds that hiss nightmares into people at night. They are not sure if they can save John.

Meanwhile John's mom is trying to get her act together. She abandoned John and he was taken away from her and put into a foster home. We are never told exactly why she left John except that she too, was abused by the father and a mess when they divorced. John's mom gets a job at a school and learns to trust people again just as John has to learn to trust his foster mom. I found the story more interesting in the realistic sections but that isn't surprising given the dream-like, less concrete beings of Littlest and Thin Elderly. The two represent a person's imagination,the fragments of memories, how we are all connected, how a story is like a vague-like dream before taking shape, and whatever other imagery or theme the reader can connect with life.

The writing is terrific and John's voice changes from one of distrust, anger and hate to one hesitantly trusting. In contrast, Littlest is innocent, playful, and good. I didn't quite think Strapping and Fastidious  moved the plot forward much but I see that they are examples of rigid thinking. Strapping is able to find his potential but Fastidious is stuck in her critical attitude that stifles her imagination and ability to find joy. I wanted to know more about Rotund. I didn't quite understand why he became a Menace. The abuse to John might disturb some readers. He pees on the floor as a three year old and his father rubs his face in it then forces him to eat dog food. When his mom cries, she is hit by the dad. The dad also breaks the boys arm, but no details are given about it. The mom is also a chain smoker with no self-confidence. Like her son, she tries to heal from her painful past.

A gossamer is something light, delicate or insubstantial like butterfly wings, cobwebs or dreams. It can be an idea for a story or a fragment of a memory. Lowry has it take the form of what I think of as a spirit-being. Littlest begins as a creature so translucent she can hardly be seen. At the end of the book she is more solid, representing that she has created memories or begun to live and collect "her story." According to Thin Elderly, "everything has a story," but because she was a baby, she was creating one. At the end, she has to leave John and move on. Some students found this sad. There is much that can be discussed about the content in this book. The abstract concepts might make it difficult for young readers to grasp the meanings Lowry is trying to convey. I think that is why I get mixed reactions from students who have read this book. While I was reading it I was reminded of Franz Kafka's short story, "The Country Doctor," that is written as a nightmare and experiments with punctuation. I'm glad Lowry kept to traditional conventions. An atypical book. Enjoy!

Reading Level 5.4
4 out of  5 Smileys

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