Sunday, March 2, 2014

After the River the Sun by Dia Calhoun

As a kid, my best friend and I would act out books we had read. Nancy Drew in "The Secret of the Old Clock," meant solving a made-up mystery and climbing the neighborhood church bell tower. "Banner in the Sky" meant freezing water on our steep backyard hill and chiseling our way up "Mount Everest." (My best friend still bemoans the ruin of her Swiss army knife hammering it into ice.) The Narnia Chronicles meant sword fights, choking down clam chowder (we were at sea and had to suffer), and suffocating in a coat closet during the heat of summer trying to wish the back of it would transform into an alternate world with fauns and witches. Acting out books was great fun and I got grounded a few times. My best friend rarely got in trouble and I remember asking her mom why as an adult. "I thought it was healthy that you both were using your imaginations." This story has Eckhart and Eva using their imaginations by acting out King Arthur stories, pretending they are knights on a quest. In reality, Eckhart is trying to deal with the tragedy of losing both parents in a rafting accident. He feels guilty over their deaths and must find the courage to forgive himself.

Eckhart Lyon is taken in by his uncle Albert after spending four months in foster homes after the death of his parents. Uncle Al says he'll take Eckhart on a trial basis. Al and his sister, Eckhart's mom, did not get along and Eckhart doesn't even know Al. Eckhart likes to play video games and is not an outside person so moving to Uncle Al's house is not easy with its lack of T.V., Internet, and other modern comforts. Eckhart has to work on Uncle Al's orchard farm and it takes some getting used to. He misses his parents desperately and keeps his mom's violin that she played in the Seattle symphony close at hand to remind him of her.

Uncle Al is dealing with grief like Eckhart although his tragedy happened three years earlier. Eckart discovers why Al and his sister no longer spoke to each other although there must be more anger to it because Al didn't even go to the funeral of his sister. With the help of Eva, Eckhart decides to go on a quest like Sir Gaiwan in the King Arthur books and find a home and find the courage to face his fears. He must decide whether or not he wants to live with his uncle who is not the most open and welcoming man. In an exciting climax Eckhart learns what sacrifice means and finds hope for his future.

When a relative of mine died tragically, the family would light a candle in his memory at  significant events or holiday gatherings. Memories of the person swirled with smells of turkey and gravy while the candle flame bent and twisted by the unseen air currents on the table. While our hearts were heavy, this ritual somehow lightened the heaviness inside me. When Eckhart builds the Tower of Troth and describes his feelings, it reminded me of our memory candle and raw grief. Uncle Al is dealing with grief as well and is an interesting contrast to Eckhart. In an interesting twist, the adult seems to be dealing with his loss in a manner less healthy than Eckhart.

The characters are well developed in Eckhart and Eva. Uncle Al is harsh, bitter, and withdrawn at the start. He has a chip on his shoulder toward his sister that makes him angry at Eckhart. He's dealing with guilt over his loss like Eckhart, but the reader isn't privy to his point of view. He angrily chopped down an orchid three years earlier and it would appear he is still mad. That is why his transformation of accepting Eckhart at the end seemed a bit sudden. While he is healing from grief and shows some internal changes as he begins to write stories again and smile more often during the day, his actions at the end and use of alcohol suggest that there may be some deeper issues he must deal with in his grief. The fact that Al's actions just about killed Eckhart, made me expect more from the resolution. It's fine, but felt a little incomplete.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex. The author has nice pacing with giving out information that keeps up the tension while the reader pieces together what happened on the river with Eckhart and his parents. At 350 pages long, this novel-in-verse can be read fairly quickly. The violin twist and use of music as a way to sooth also adds to Eckhart's emotional journey of learning to accept the tragedy. An excellent grade 4-5 story.

4 Smileys

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