Saturday, December 3, 2011

Module 14: Crossing Stones


Helen Frost's Crossing Stones is a YA novel that is told in structured verse.

Page from Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac
The book tells the story of children whose homes are separated by a creek, and whose lives are all changed by World War I; Ollie, Muriel and Grace, and then Emma and Frank.  Frank and Ollie join the war effort on the front lines, with tragic consequences, while Muriel struggles with figuring out who she is and whether or not she wants to be a proper lady -- all the while hearing from her suffragist aunt in DC through letters that are censored thanks to the Espionage Act.  Throughout the story, readers see through the eyes of Muriel, Emma, Ollie and Frank in poetic turn as they struggle to grow up during war.


The book is a short read, as the length is due more to empty space due to the poetic structure of the book, and as such, it is not incredibly detailed -- plot points fly by quickly if a reader is skimming.  That is not, of course, a negative aspect, only something to consider; the poetic structure carries the weight of the plot appropriately, in that it, too, is not too complicated or abstract.  The author explains in an end note that the consistent zig-zag pattern of Muriel's poems contrasting with the rounded ovals and circles of Ollie and Emma's poems are done to mimic the stream, with Ollie and Emma's poems representing the stones that the characters cross from home to home, back and forth, as their story plays out.  My one complaint with the book is the lack of clear characterization; Emma does not have much of a personality, and due to the poetic structure, there is a finite amount of space in which to do such characterization.  As such, with multiple narrators, and a rather short length in all, as a reader I did not ultimately feel I got to know the characters very well.  Although the book's dust jacket and the end-note about the structure say that the book is about the two families crossing the river and its stones from one house to the other, this is not a strong point in the book itself, and the tension that is resolved at the end feels a little hollow, since I did not catch much tension between the families in the first place.  However, this is not a huge complaint -- though it may seem that way without the amount of space I've taken up writing it out.

The most interesting parts of the book are, to me, Ollie's poems as a 16-year-old boy experiencing World War I.  In particular:

night again     fed myself today
better than last week                       ouch
Nurse--                            please tie my shoe
(Frank?    Where is he?                       What happened?)
rat in the trench     ran across my arm     who killed the rat?
black eyes                          skinny tail                   staring at me
wouldn't stop                        explosions                       all night
couldn't sleep                                                                losing
track of time                 how many days                    weeks?
That's right -- you're getting better. At least not any
(tank             stuck in mud                        ambulance?)
worse.                               Shall we write a
letter for you?                     Don't be
frightened.  You'll go home soon.

(Frost, p. 78)
The difference from this versus Ollie's previous poems until this point is that his previous entries are all perfectly symmetrical spheres and orbs, not broken up with so much empty space.  (I hope the above poem translates as a sphere one it's posted...we'll see how that looks formatting-wise...)

The story follows Muriel as she graduates high school until she finds her path.  I felt like the story dropped off a bit sharply, but it is not a bad ending, either.  For readers looking for a book that can be dissected both on an aesthetic level (the structured verse meant to stand for a theme in the story) or historical level (World War I & the suffrage movement in the US) or just looking for a book that's written in verse, this is a solid pick.


"Historically plausible, this cluster of catastrophes could potentially be too much for a single narrative, but Frost contains and reveals her story in a set of tightly constructed poems. Eighteen-year-old Muriel, who is our primary source of information, speaks in an engaging and convincing free-verse stream-ofconsciousness style. The other two young adult narrators speak in “cupped-hand sonnets,” a form with a highly stylized rhyme scheme. The discipline of these forms (elaborated upon in an author’s note) mitigates against sentimentality, and the distinct voices of the characters lend immediacy and crispness to a story of young people forced to grow up too fast" (Horn Book Magazine, 2009).

"At home, Muriel finds inspiration in her suffragist aunt’s protests in Washington, D.C., while the more traditional Emma observes, “Making sure everyone is fed / and clothed and cared for—that also takes a kind of pluck.” Frost, whose titles include the Printz Honor Book Keesha’s House (2003), once again offers a layered, moving verse novel. Each selection, alternately narrated by Muriel, Ollie, and Emma, is shaped to reflect the characters’ personalities and relationships: Muriel’s free-flowing entries indicate her restless curiosity; Emma and Ollie’s sonnets follow complementary rhyming patterns, adding a structural link between the characters as they fall in love. The historical details (further discussed in an author’s note) and feminist messages are purposeful, but Frost skillfully pulls her characters back from stereotype with their poignant, private, individual voices and nuanced questions, which will hit home with contemporary teens, about how to recover from loss and build a joyful, rewarding future in an unsettled world" (Booklist, 2009).


This book is a good example for a YA book to display during Women's History month because while a lot of the plot focuses on the two boys, Frank and Ollie, fighting the war, a good deal more of the plot examines Muriel's aunt Vera's hunger strike in prison, Muriel's taking up of the suffragist banner and deciding to be, as Frost writes in the afterword, "a happily unmarried woman" (Frost, p. 178).


Engberg, G. (2009). Crossing Stones. Booklist, 106(3), 42.

Frost, H. (2009).  Crossing stones.  New York: Frances Foster Books

S., E. E. (2009). Crossing Stones. Horn Book Magazine, 85(6), 671.

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