With sure, crystalline prose, Henkes discloses the breathless
suspense that even the shortest moment can contain, and the enormous courage
that loss demands. Young readers who plunge into these extraordinary
interlocking stories will discover mysterious, sad, and hopeful things about
themselves and the people they love.
A melancholy and often ominous sense of place suffuses Henkes' novel. The chapters alternate between the points of view of two boys visiting Bird Lake for the first time. The first is twelve-year-old Mitch, staying with his mother at his maternal grandparents' home since his father left to pursue an affair. The second is Spencer, accompanying his younger sister and parents on their emotional return to the place where his brother drowned years before. Their parents' ambiguous pain and the boys' anxiety about how it will affect their futures darken most of Mitch's and Spencer's experiences and explorations.
Bird Lake is a quiet, sleepy place, but for the boys it is the locus of emotional turbulence and volatility. Their parents, struggling for composure and wrestling with huge losses and guilt, are remote, and often preoccupied: Important things are left unsaid; urgent questions are left unasked; conversations are full of angry or confusing silences. Mitch and Spencer must cope with fear, confusion and almost unmanageable sorrow on their own. Mitch, desperate to reclaim what he has lost, becomes obsessed with the empty house next door and claims it as his own, taping a photo of his now-defunct family in a hiding place, carving his initials on the porch:
"His thoughts about the house may have begun as a whim, but they'd become serious. Firm, possible; a decision. He'd start to make the house his own, little by little. And so he swept the stoop and cleaned the birdbath and sat under the back porch, and carved his initials into the front-porch railing, thinking that the things he did would somehow bring him closer to ownership. If he could believe the impossible truth that his father had left him and his mother, then he could believe that this house was there for the taking."
Mitch is shocked when Spencer's intact and apparently happy family intrudes
by moving in, and he retaliates by stealing Spencer's swim goggles, untying
their dog's leash while the family swims, and leaving a sinister sign on the
Already anxious about the death of his brother, Spencer discovers the sugar design and the dead bee Mitch has left with it and he begins to fear his house is haunted by his brother's spirit. Henkes finesses what could have been a heavy-handed device, but I wonder if he needed to go as far as he does with these coincidences: Spencer associates a turtle with his dead brother; Mitch's design resembles a turtle. Spencer's brother's initials are the same as Mitch's.
The novel is most rich and interesting when Mitch and Spencer are boys, not merely boys with problems: Spencer's impatience and restraint with his sister, Mitch's panicky bike ride in search of Spencer's dogthese scenes are full of life and freshness.
Bird Lake Moon is a sad, intense but ultimately hopeful book: Mitch survives his father's betrayal and their friendship strengthens and reassures both boys. I suspect librarians, psychologists and teachers will eagerly recommend Bird Lake Moon to youngsters struggling with divorce or the loss of a sibling. Still I don't know if this or other issue-oriented novels help kids cope or not. In Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir Barbara Feinberg notes that traumatized children and teenagers enjoy fairy tales and happy, escapist stories. I can't be sure how young readers will interpret the adults in Henke's book, either. Are they useless when children need them the most? But I'm absolutely sure Henkes' prosesharp and exhilarating when he devotes himself to the fullness of the momentwill do young readers good:
". . . Finally they walked to the lake together.
Spencer sniffed. The air smelled of dirt and water and weeds. Dank. The air had an unusual quality to it, as well. Nothingness and everything mixed. Spenser could feel the air. All around him like a thick coat. Or a heavy blanket draped over his shoulders.
Down at the lake, he and Lolly slipped off their shoes. They walked slowly into the cold, black water. Little waves lapped greedily at their ankles and kissed the shore. Fip, fip, fip. If Spencer craned his neck a certain way, the moon, which was nearly full, looked as if it were caught in the branches of the big willow tree at the water's edge like a lost ball. Behind him, the lights they'd turned on in the house punctuated the night.
'Stay near," his mother said.
. . . Everything seemed to be waiting: his mother, the moon, the lake, the house.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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