Sunday, February 22, 2015


There's a lot to discuss in terms of the new book from Vermont author Don Bredes, POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD. Fortunately, for readers who emerge from this dystopian novel eager to talk with someone about some of the pressing aspects, Bredes is hosting passionate discussions; check in at his website, and click through to the topics that burn for you.

But first you'll need to read the book (of course). It's not a mystery, yet I want to write about it here because (a) the author's local (yeah, we do that at Kingdom Books), (b) the topics embedded in the tale are hot ones, and (c) the book has been described as YA (young adult) fantasy.

Let's get to the plot: Fifteen-year-old Polly Lightfoot, a gifted "natural" witch whose magic still benefits from the words found in spells, is supposed to be hiding her talents while living with an aunt and uncle in New Florida. Her father's trying to keep her safer than she would be in their original home up where New England once was -- the area's been taken over by the post-nuclear-war forces that insist on complete Christianity, and even burn witches alive.

But living with her relatives includes obeying them and their pastor, and Polly can't do it. With the unexpected arrival of her animal familiar, the raven Balthazar, who can communicate with her directly, she's motivated to run away, head north, try to get home to where people accept her for herself.

Thus begins an epic journey through areas of environmental collapse, radiation danger, clusters of "frenemies" who will assist Polly under some conditions, then turn her in under others. It's a Pilgrim's Progress in dystopian attire, and I would toss away the "fantasy" label and replace it with "magical realism" -- parallel to Howard Frank Mosher's Walking to Gatlinburg  and Disappearances. (Not coincidentally, Mosher and Bredes are long-time friends.)

Classic analysis of genre novels -- those that submit to such genre conventions as having an ending that somehow mirrors and fulfills the opening, and a main character whose strengths and weaknesses interact with situations and eventually justify the good or sad ending -- often consider two arcs that define the book: an arc of plot, and an arc of character. Powerful novels often make the two interdependent. As a simple example (since we're talking teenaged protagonists), Harry Potter becomes courageous and moral through his choices in frightening and distressing conflicts. At one point in the noted seven-book series, the very wise wizard Albus Dumbledore shows Harry that even a mythic sort of situation can't force a person to be a particular way; it's one's choices that create the path.

Looking at POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD in these terms, the plot arc -- escaping oppression, traveling a long distance with little support, evade enemies, reaching (we hope) safety -- is straightforward, and Bredes enables its forward motion through Polly's friend on the road, Leon, as well as the short-phrased guidance of Balthazar flying ahead and above. The character arc is set in motion through Polly's age, 15: We may assume she is naive in many ways, unskilled in wilderness survival, semi-skilled in the magic that makes her a witch, and is going to deepen as a person while she remedies these "not-yet" factors of herself. Classic "YA" direction also assumes Polly will move from teenager status to something more adult, by experiencing loss, making uncomfortable decisions, and following her longing to connect with her father and her "people" in the north.

Some of this does in fact take place; there are also character changes in Polly's friend Leon that are interesting to look back on. It was intriguing to me, though, that I could have replaced Polly with an adult (say, someone in her twenties or thirties) in much of the book. In other words, the ways the plot arc and character arc connect have less to do with the drama of entering adulthood, and more to do with a determination to keep moving north, across the obstacles.

Also at play in the book is a "mission." This idea is introduced in the first chapter, when we learn that Polly's father has a mission for her to tackle in Florida, as well as wanting to keep her safe there. I felt that the mission rarely took on definition, though, as Polly showed little personal commitment to it -- just suddenly accusing herself of failing it, and at another point, being assisted to regain an item she's lost possession of, but neither moment takes up many pages or much room in her emotions. I would have liked to see the mission fleshed out more -- which may come in part from my enjoyment of the way mission and mythic are often bound together in "fantasy" genre books.

I'll be interested in following the path of this novel in the wide world; will teens read it, or will it become largely a book that adults seek out, looking for how Bredes handles the "cli-fi" theme (social collapse melding with climate collapse) and appreciating the connections also to the Salem witch trials of New England and Arthur Miller's The Crucible? For me, the book also reawakens an urge to re-read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, another grim look at where dogma and destruction can lead.

Last but not least, a word to those who may have strong religious frameworks: Don't look for them in POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD, where Christians are fanatics, and witches are mostly born that way. But do take a look at this recent New York Times blog post, which I think is worth considering in terms of how this book, and others moving into the YA field, are constructed: Childhood Heroes ... by Rachel Kadish.

Thanks, Don Bredes, for stepping forward to promote discussion of our pressing issues as a culture and as an ecosystem.  And a warm thank you to Green Writers Press, publisher, for daring to step into controversial fiction in its Vermont and national profile.

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