Through the Darkness
A new novel examines the world inside a Maine house from the point of view of a captive child.
- By: Debra Spark
Jan Elizabeth Watson’s fascinating debut novel Asta in the Wings (Tin House, New York, NY, and Portland, OR; paperback; 314 pages; $14) reads almost like a modern day Hansel and Gretel. Only the fairy tale is told in reverse and the wandering siblings are Asta, a precocious, articulate seven-year-old, and Orion, her sickly, nine-year-old brother. Their story begins rather than ends in the gingerbread house, which is fashioned, for the novel’s sake, as an “isolated Cape-style house in Maine,” somewhere near a “touristy” town, but far enough north to have a French-Canadian influence.
A tourtiere pie makes an appearance, and there’s a general sense of a stark landscape. (Watson herself grew up in Augusta and is a graduate of, and adjunct professor at, the University of Maine Farmington.) Of the neighboring beach town, Asta says, “Its shoreline was infamous, Mother had told me, for having coughed up the body of what was presumed to be the Loch Ness monster but was later identified as a badly decomposed shark.” Asta’s mother is given to such queer and funny pronouncements, because her children can’t learn such things for themselves. They’ve been locked inside her home for the whole of Asta’s and much of Orion’s life.
When Mother bolts the door (from the outside) and goes to work — as a cleaning lady, but one who fancies herself a could-have-been actress of the Golden Age of Cinema — Asta and her brother busy themselves with games, TV, and hunger management. Their mother has convinced them that they’re in the house to avoid “the plague” outside and, too, that food is problematic because it “weigh the body down, making it less resistant to infection.” Not only has Asta never been outside, she hasn’t seen outside; her mother has papered over her home’s windows.
The “goodies” of Asta’s home aren’t cake and candies — there’s nothing but bouillon and old pickles in the cupboard — but the enchanting charms of the mother, who, while patently wacko, is also learned, loving (in her way), and appealingly eccentric. In the opening scene, Asta describes her mother lying in the bath, reading Shakespeare out loud: “ ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,’ she quoted with a piquant trilling of r’s. ‘Go ahead, Pork Chop, try saying it with me.’ ” Asta demurs, and her mother then says, “Is it just me, Asta, or does that line contain a falsehood? Something a little bit off? What word in this line sounds phony-baloney to you?”
Even though the novel is told from the point of an older Asta, one gets — for the most part — Asta’s childhood perceptions, though delivered in language which no seven-year-old would be capable of, less so a child who has never met someone other than her brother and mother and knows the world primarily through TV and a close study of her mother’s “Big Movie Book.” Other things make the novel seem a tad unrealistic. For instance, Asta doesn’t seem to have any signs of Vitamin D deficiency, though she is so skinny that, as she reports, “It hurt my bottom to sit on unpadded chairs, and I had to sleep with a pillow between my legs because my knees jabbed into each other.” And yet, despite these apparent problems, Watson’s novel works, and works magically well at that.
Asta and Orion have come to love their captor: They know no better. But the breadcrumbs of the novel lead out of the gingerbread house and toward new caretakers. Through a series of accidents, Asta and Orion leave their house and head into the snowy world, first stumbling on a store that sells night crawlers. Asta ends up in the home of a parent at least as oblivious as the huntsman and his wife; her brother lands in better circumstances, though he responds to his new life by refusing to speak.
In the end, Watson’s novel beguiles because of Asta’s compelling voice and Watson’s tight writing. From the very first page, where Asta speaks “of the last day, the day before everything changed,” one wants to hear all of what she has to say and to cheer her through her trials. The surprise of the book is that the creepy tensions of the story’s world end happily or happily enough. Orion and Asta take their walk in the dark and dangerous woods and emerge into a kind of sunlight, exactly what the reader hopes for them.
More than twenty years ago, Down East published an article about the wreck of the Royal Tar, a steamship carrying circus animals. The story engaged the imagination of children’s book author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen. Now Van Dusen, who is also a frequent contributor to Down East, has written his latest book loosely based around the events of that tall but true tale. The Circus Ship (Candlewick Press, Boston, MA; hardcover; 40 pages; $16.99) is a delightful tale about shipwrecked animals that make their way onto a rugged Maine island and into the hearts of the island’s inhabitants.
- By: Debra Spark