Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Road Taken: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marcheta

My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.

I counted.

It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I'd ever seen, where trees made lovely canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La

Melina Merchetta's Jellicoe Road begins with a tragedy, a tragedy which begins a great friendship among five young people--Narnie, Tate, Webb, Fitz, and Jude--who each play a part in that tragedy, and their friendship which leads to a second tragedy in which they lose each other. And out of those two tragedies comes the beginning of Taylor's story.

"What do you want from me?" he asks.

What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him. More.

The more that Taylor Markham needs from everyone is what she didn't get from her mother, Tate, who abandoned her in a 7-11, on the Jellicoe Road--not the love and protection which her drugged out mom couldn't provide, nor her own life story which neither her mother nor Hannah, her guardian and only friend at the Jellicoe School, could ever bear to tell her.

Six years later Taylor is an eleventh year student, chosen for her seniority as the-one-in-charge, commander and negotiator for the annual skirmish with the school's rivals, the Townies from nearby Jellicoe and the Cadets, military school students whose annual month-long camp is held nearby. The territorial skirmish, a tradition going back 18 years to unremembered students who devised the Purple Notebook of regulations, is about to begin again, and Taylor is the unwilling commandant of Lachlan House and the other five houses. Overwhelmed as she is by her trusted guardian's sudden disappearance without a word, Taylor has little energy for the fun-and-games negotiations of the skirmish, especially when she learns that the Cadets are led by Jonah Briggs, whom she met when she ran away from school to find her mother three years earlier.

Taylor is haunted by her mother's disappearance and by strange yet somehow comforting dreams--of a boy in a tree who speaks to her and a hermit who whispers to her--and by Hannah's unfinished novel of five friends which Taylor cannot identify but which somehow seem part of herself. When Hannah, her friend and protector, suddenly disappears from the school without a word, Taylor finds herself inexplicably drawn to those remaining who seem to know a part of her story, the part she herself cannot discover.

And then Jonah Griggs appears, now leader of the Cadets--the same Jonah who shared a dangerous escapade years before, and the weight of the mysterious dreams and broken stories almost overwhelms her. Still, Taylor is drawn against her will into a closer relationship with Griggs and with his opposite number, Santangelo, leader of the Townies. Each brings a part of the puzzle about who her father was and how he died, why her mother could not cope with life on her own, and how Hannah came to be her savior at the 7-11, and why she suddenly went away. At last Jonah offers to take her to Sydney to trace her mother's whereabouts, and as they do, the five friends from Hannah's incomplete manuscript and the five founders of the mock war between the school, the Townies, and the Cadets emerge from the past, and Taylor sees the bonds which tie them all to her own history.

Winner of the 2009 Printz Award for Young Adult Literature, this novel begins in mystery. Taylor's broken life and Hannah's fragmented novel of the five friends who came together in Jellicoe relates in alternating chapters these two stories with their eerie parallels and sudden revelations. At last Taylor knows that her lifelong dreams about the boy in the tree lie at the core of the mystery and that she alone can bring the two broken threads of her life together to build her own future.

This is not an easy novel; the reader at first is given to know only what Taylor knows, and the exposition is sometimes maddeningly deliberate. But Marchetti skillfully draws the fragments closer and closer into a pattern as her main character reconstructs her own history, and the revelation and redemption that finally come are sweet and satisfying. This is a novel for mature young adult readers who want more than a romping teen romance out of this story, and more is definitely what they get. As Taylor herself says, finally...

... my days of waiting for more are over. If I want more, I need to go and get it, demand it, take hold of it with all my might, and do the best I can with it.

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  • You did a wonderful job of unpacking the story of this book - I've found that it's such a tough plot to talk about! Just reading about these characters and their story again has pulled me right back into thinking about this book - I read it weeks ago and it still hasn't let go.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:18 AM  

  • Dear biblauragraphy,
    Thanks! Whew! That IS a hard novel to put into a compact review format. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one! I struggled with all the loose ends of the exposition through the first half of the book actually, but Marchetta did manage to carry it off in the end!

    I agree that it's a hard book to get out of your mind--rather like John Green's Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns in that regard.

    Thanks for your comment.

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:22 AM  

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