This is a little gem of a book. It is very American in several senses, but that is not to say that it is in any way inaccessible to children (or adults) here in the UK, where it deserves to find a wide and appreciative readership. It belongs, I feel, very much to a particular distinctive thread of US children's fiction which grew with such wonderful writers as Betsy Byars, Katherine Patterson and Lois Lowry and is being continued, for example, in some books from the brilliant Sharon Creech. Now a most promising new voice, Edith Cohn, inherits the mantle of these illustrious predecessors yet makes the genre very much her own.
I do do not mean to be pejorative in describing this book as 'little'. To me it belongs very much to a tradition of US writing for children that I think of as 'backyard' fiction. Such books usually narrate in detail a short period in the everyday life of one or more children, very much centered in their own, often 'ordinary', home and local community. These children play out events which help them come to terms with issues which may be small in the global scale of things, but which are huge and very real to the children themselves. In the hands of such great writers, these stories end up reaching right into the heart of the human condition, resonating with universal significance despite, or perhaps because of, their young protagonists and their domestic scale and setting.
In this very sense Spirit's Key is both a little book and a huge one. What makes it rather distinctive is that, whilst it very much captures the features and qualities just described, it also engagingly teeters on the edge of fantasy. Of course it is just about as far from epic 'full' fantasy it is possible to be. Yet the psychic talents inherited by the protagonist, Spirit, from her 'Greats' (ancestors) and, perhaps more especially, the ghost dogs in whose company she spends much of the tale, have a level of 'reality' in her world rather than than being the simple workings of her imagination. After all the dogs do appear physically to drag a kayak across her island, several people do see rope apparently suspended unsupported in mid air and the fulfillment of Spirit's clairvoyant predictions seems more than mere coincidence. If anything Spirit's Key is perhaps best described as magic realism for children. The result is indeed magical without this in any way detracting from the human relevancy of the story's conflict and resolution; a beautifully balanced and most engaging amalgam.
Within this, there are two things particularly that make this book so special. One is the great sensitivity and ultimate power with which the character of Spirit and her relationships, not least with her dog, Sky, are imagined. The other is the wonderfully vivid creation of the locale, a tiny island community which manages to evoke some sense of the exotic at the same time as epitomising an American small town community. This is peopled with the very entertaining cast of mostly endearing eccentrics usually associated with such places, at least in fiction. Oh, and did I say, this is a book for dog lovers. It's overall messages about the importance of the natural world and all life are strong, clear and enormously important too. My wife always hates stories in which 'the dog dies' but since, in this one, the dog has already died before the story starts perhaps she would be okay with it.
I must admit to generally having a strong antipathy to novels written entirely in the historic present. This seems to have become something of a fashion, particularly amongst writers of adult literary fiction, but I usually find the somehow very pretentious artificiality of this style of writing both intrusive and discomforting. However in this book, where it is indeed used throughout, I surprised myself by thinking it very apt. Here it does indeed help create a very 'in the moment' feel and puts the reader right behind Spirit's eyes, as it were, engendering the strongest and most moving of empathy.
A beautiful story beautifully told. What an exciting prospect for the future Edith Cohen is.