The Story Web – Megan Frazer Blakemore, Bloomsbury Children’s Book, 2019
The premise of Megan Frazer Blakemore’s latest novel is a compelling one, especially for readers who love stories. If that seems like a redundancy, it’s not. Blakemore’s ten-year old heroine, Alice Dingwell, follows in a literary tradition of bookish girls whose lives are given purpose by reading: Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Fern reading Charlotte’s famous web. The novel also weaves in the natural world, as animals in the woods surrounding the small Maine town of Independence confer on how to save the economically depressed community, where people seem to be turning against one another and forgetting the narratives which they held in common. Blakemore’s characters are children who look up to their parents and the parents who sometimes fail them, as well as other adults who provide support and encouragement in the face of loss. Then there are Alice’s friends, Lewis and Melanie, with whom she shares imperfect relationships, but finally, common goals. Readers will share the friends’ confusion and anxiety as they seek to prevent the collapse of their world, the terrible Freezing which sets in when humans cease to value the stories which bind them together, and the web’s strands fray and disintegrate.
Alice’s father has been hospitalized for PTSD, and she is holding on to the lessons she learned from him, some in a missing rare volume called The Story Web. There is clearly deliberate echo in the novel of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; the connection is not belabored, but is one of the many strands of Alice’s life. As in L’Engle’s fantasy, a missing father renders Alice something of an outlier in the town. While several neighbors show compassion, others see his psychological wounds as a stigma. Even her best friend, Lewis, is unable to articulate his empathy for Alice. Blakemore constructs a believable setting and cast of characters. Henrietta Watanabe is the quirky proprietor of “the Museum,” a shop housing the town’s treasures, but also a wise custodian of memories. Alice’s mom is a hard works in a hospital, and is both loving and overwhelmed. Her uncle Donny is the town’s hockey coach and a younger, and more whole version of his heroic older brother. Then there is the chorus of residents who are suspicious of anyone or anything different: a wounded veteran, a mysterious older woman deemed to be a witch, a moose who wanders into town to issue a warning.
One of the most striking aspects of The Story Web is its feeling of balance. Chapters alternate between different characters’ perspectives, including animals. Fantasy and reality interact seamlessly. People are flawed and afraid, but able to grow. The ending is not one of unalloyed joy, although it is hopeful. Alice’s father had helped her to understand that, it is not only the stories which people invent, but the ones which they choose to repeat, that define their lives and the lives of those around them. The Story Web is an exciting book for middle grade readers and older, appealing to them on many levels, and raising as many questions as it resolves.