Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

I didn't know that my heart had breath until it stopped breathing. I feel like a kid who's just read his first chapter book & is breathless with the exhilaration of the freedom that comes with reading.

That first taste of freedom is quickly drowned by a gluttony of books, & he begins to discover that all books are not written equally. The feel of the wind rushing up under his wings is forgotten as he stares at walls & walls of books with the dour pessimism that can only be embodied by a young reader: I've read everything good. There's nothing left.

I have just been reminded of that feeling, though, & I am long past my first experience with a book. I have beside me Ashes by Kathryn Lasky. It's the library's copy, & I tell myself that it's much cheaper to buy my own than to keep this one, but like my husband and my children, this is a...voice...I cannot part with. Not ever.

Ashes is a young adult historical fiction set in pre-WWII Germany. Within that period, I've read many fiction and non-fiction books; this one is the first that I can think of that is not specifically about the Holocaust. It tells another story of the Nazi tragedy that is haunting because we all know so well what came after.

I enjoy historical fiction, but it almost seems unfair to classify this book: it rises above genre. It's a coming-of-age story, & it's a human story. Post-WWI Germany is just its tumultuous setting, although "just" is hardly an appropriate adjective. When we define something as a "setting," there seems to be the implication that it's distinctly less relevant than plot or characterization. But of course, none of us can really separate the setting of our lives from the plot, & it is often as much our setting as anything that gives us character, makes us who we are. Lasky writes as if she understands this deeply.

It's not due back until the end of January, so I have some time to get to a bookstore. My real concern, of course, is how many copies to buy & how to get them autographed. When I return the book to the library, I'm thinking of returning it with a donation, in honor of my gratitude to a system that stocks such great literature so soon after its publication date (2010). And for being brave enough to share it with me.

I feel as if I have never read a good book before, as if I'd just this week learned to enjoy reading. Actually, based on my previous might agree.

Ashes is as fun to read as mind-candy & perhaps it is that that makes its beauty all the more stunning. Several times, I had to stop reading—just to breathe. It's not a breathless adventure novel; it's just that its...authenticity...takes you that much by surprise. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever read a truer book, on either side of the library.

Ashes is not a style I've ever been particularly drawn to. It's relatively traditional (with the exception of the preface through chapter 3), but the tightness of the writing & the authenticity of the voice, the texture with which Lasky weaves the story—are all revolutionary in their excellence.

I want to give you examples, but my husband has asked that I don't. He wants to keep the experience pure for himself as he reads, to be as surprised by the skillfulness of the author & the detail of the story as I was. For his sake, I'll at least hold off on examples. But I do have advice for you before you run out to get your own copy:

1. Do not read the dust jacket. It's a good book, so you don't need a preview (although I enjoyed reading the back cover first), & I think the dust jacket gives just a little too much away. Not anything plot-changing, but more fun as a surprise.

2. If you've ever read anything else by Kathryn Lasky, assume nothing about this novel. I read The Night Journey to the kids the week before I read Ashes. Thirty years have passed between the publication of the two books, & it shows. Lasky's skill has developed so incredibly in those intervening years that she is almost unrecognizable from one book to another. Ashes reads as if it were a story she'd been wanting to tell her whole life & finally, she's pulled together the words & the images, & the result is a masterpiece, a life's work.

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