Crossing Stones by Helen Frost
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: I have confessed here before about the flaw in my character – I am not a huge fan of poetry and I mostly dislike verse novels. Therefore I hope, gentle readers, that you will pay special attention to a verse novel that I love. Crossing Stones (Farrar/Frances Foster 2009) is extraordinary. First of all this is exquisitely crafted poetry with a fascinating structure. The structure is more than just verbal gymnastics. Intriguing and rigorous in itself, the structure serves to enhances the story and strengthen the emotional impact of the book. There is a real story here too with thematic depth and wonderfully nuanced characters.
Set in 1917 Michigan the story follows nine months in the lives of four young people who have grown up on adjacent farms separated by a stream and connected by the stepping stones that cross it. Muriel and Ollie Jorgensen have grown up with Frank and Maud Norman. Muriel, bright and restless, wonders about a life outside the farm. When Frank tells her he is leaving for the army, she declines his kiss and resists his “obvious” plans for the future yet there is a hint of more than friendship in their changing relationship. A few weeks later, 16-year-0ld Ollie runs away to join up also, lying about his age. The alternating poems beautifully explore the impact of the war on the home front, the conditions in the trenches and the boys’ disillusionment, the women’s suffrage movement, and the enormous changes in society and culture. All this is rendered with astonishing immediacy by Frost’s evocative poetry, each voice intensely distinct. Here for example is Muriel:
You’d better straighten out your mind, Young Lady.
That’s what the teacher, Mr. Sander, tells me. As if I could
stretch the corners of my thoughts like you’d pull
a rumpled quilt across a bed in an attempt to make
it look like no one slept there…
Crossing Stones is a book to be read multiple times. The “Notes on Form” provided me with help on things I had missed on the first reading like the connected rhyming lines of the sonnets but much of the structure was clear on first reading. I could gush on but I need to leave something for Cindy to say. This verse novel worked for me on all levels. It pierced my resistance to the form and took me captive.
Cindy: Did she really say “the flaw” in her character as if there’s only one? The copyeditor in me would like to change that to “a flaw.” Never mind, it’s Christmas and she’s my dear friend so I’ll be charitable (besides, I don’t need her enumerating my flaws here in retaliation–like the fact that I was supposed to have written this blog post yesterday and instead spent it wrapping and baking). Unlike Lynn, I adore verse novels, as long as they contain real poetry and aren’t just pretend verse novels. You know, the lazy ones that are prose with line breaks to pretend they are poetry. Frost writes real poetry and it sings.
First there’s the form that Lynn hints at. Muriel’s poems are written in a zigzaging form to mimic the creek that separates the farms and her zigzaging thoughts between her expected role as a future farm wife and her budding ideas about feminism nurtured by her suffragette aunt. Emma and Ollie’s poems are shaped like the stepping stones that help these friends get back and forth to visit, to laugh, to kiss, to mourn, to heal. Then Frost sets herself a rhyming challenge that is hardly noticeable but that is an achievement worthy of note. The stepping stone poems are “cupped-hand sonnets,” fourteen line poems in which the first and last lines rhyme, the second and second-to last, etc. until the middle two lines, which rhyme with each other. Ollie’s poems rhyme the first words of the lines, Emma’s the last lines, and then one rhyme links to the next poem, but I’ll leave you to work that out or read the note on form that Frost helpfully provides. It’s not something that is easily noticeable as the poems are read, but it’s fun to go back and look for–and many young poets will be enticed to try it themselves.
Lynn and I have complained for years about the dearth of World War I fiction (nonfiction, too). So the recent gift of several excellent titles (Steampunk Leviathan, Nonfiction Truce about the Christmas Day peace) and now fictional Crossing Stones, is very welcome. I think my favorite element of this story is the theme of interconnectedness. Frost does an admirable job of showing us how our actions and inaction affect one another. How nature interacts, how people interact. How one person’s shame (Ollie–”I couldn’t learn to kill.”) can be seen as admirable to someone else. The war didn’t just happen in the trenches, it took place at home, too.
Lynn: OK OK – so I have many flaws but it IS the holiday season so I was hoping the rest will be overlooked
Cindy and I send our wishes for a joyous season and we hope you find a little time for reading something wonderful.