Darkwood, by M.E. Breen; Bloomsbury
Children’s Books: New York, 2009; $16.99
“What happened next was so strange that Annie could not be sure afterward what was real and what she had imagined.”
This line, from M. E. Breen’s Darkwood, is an accurate summary of Breen’s first novel. The story is a wonderful sort of strange, and captivates the mind like any work of a master fantasy writer.
Annie Trewitt’s story begins in Howland, a dark little town in the depths of Dour County where “kinderstalk” prowl the nighttime woods searching for humans and animals to prey on. Annie lives with her prim aunt and odious, ill-tempered uncle. Her parents and sister have been “killed,” or so it seems. The beginning of the story has a bleak and mysterious tone to it. The plot initially is a bit confusing but quickly unwinds itself to a comprehensible state. Throughout the first few chapters, the mood increasingly chills as Annie’s adventure takes her to the dreaded woods—at night.
Some of the feelings that Annie experiences in the beginning are loneliness and desperation. Her only true companions at the start are her wise and unfailingly loyal cats, Isadore and Prudence, whose characters are portrayed so well that the reader forgets, at times, that they are not human.
I found this bleak loneliness at the start of the story to be overwhelming, but as the story progresses, Annie’s character grows easier to identify with. Breen captures the experiences of a young girl who is almost completely alone in a frightening world, but who somehow manages to function instinctively, and to be passionate and admirably brave.
A great snapshot is the line “But now—now she could hardly bear ever having resented Page for anything.” Annie lost her beloved sister, Page, years before the story takes place, but still constantly aches for her. I knew exactly how Annie felt: she could not even consider resenting her sister because of anything, now that she had lost her.
My favorite part of the story was how Annie’s family was slowly pieced back together, and her fascinating relationship with the “kinderstalk,” which reworked the typical animal-human relationships found in today’s youth fiction.
However, a major theme in this novel is also corruption and evil. Most of the adults in the story are strong antagonists. The lack of positive adult characters adds to the chill of the plot. Annie almost always found a way to fight back against these seemingly stronger villains and eventually triumph.
I can relate to Annie’s audacity and rebelliousness. Often in school I am the one to speak up when an assignment is unclear or unfair to my classmates and me. Audacity and courage are always involved. At one point, Annie goes to work at the Drop, the mine where children are forced to mine ringstone (a valuable stone) alongside adults. However, Annie does not cower in fear when ruthless adults yell at her. She realizes that something very wrong is going on at the mine, and she eventually makes her escape.
I was impressed with Darkwood. The plot is entertainingly complex yet comprehensible, and features the perfect mix of chill, suspense, and triumph. My only complaint about Darkwood is that it will leave you begging for a sequel.