Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'Tis the Blight that Man Was Born For: The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Back home in California, no one ever ate lunch indoors--lunchtime was a strictly outdoor activity. It was humane. There was room to breathe.

But that was back home. Here in Oregon, where it had rained literally every day since they'd parked the moving van, school lunch had to be consumed indoors.

It was another reason to hate it here. As if Iris didn't have a long enough list already.

And there was Sarah's ghost.

Iris's best friend Sarah had been killed back in California that summer, leaving the tennis courts, struck by a careening car that just missed Iris and hit Sarah right beside her. Sarah had always been her other half, the person with whom she shared everything, and Iris longs for her friend, who seems, not gone at all, but somehow just beyond her reach. The "fresh start" in Corvallis, with its interminable gray drizzle, the change that her parents hoped would help, wasn't working.

The new life is nothing like her old life, surrounded by friends. People in the middle school cafeteria stare at her standing with her tray in the middle of room alone, so Iris accepts the offer of a strange-looking boy with wild curly hair to sit with him at an empty table. Boris is clearly not one of the popular kids. His social skills reveal no concept of personal space, chewing and at the same time garrulously talking on and on about some game while Iris sits, gaze averted. But Boris is cheerful and invites her over to his house, and Iris reluctantly agrees, mostly from a lack of other options.

But Boris soon tells her his story. He survived to be born by what his parents feel was a real miracle, an internal deformity correcting itself as a group of nuns prayed to Pope John Paul, and he tells her that he'll soon be visited by a team from the Vatican, sent to determine if a miracle had actually occurred with his birth,

Iris is startled. If a doomed baby can be restored to health, perhaps a miracle which will allow her to reach Sarah's ghost could happen for her. Iris somehow comes to believe that Sarah's spirit is in their storage closet with her tennis racket, the one she was holding when she died. Secretly Iris visits the town psychic, and even agrees to search of traces of Sarah's spirit with Boris' audio equipment. On Sarah's birthday, Iris buys a copy of Anne of Green Gables, wraps it lovingly, and hides it in the closet behind the racket for Sarah. Then one night she hears a strange sound from downstairs.

Whatever it was, came from beneath her, not above.

Iris blinked into the hallway's darkness and felt her way to the banister, then down the steep staircase.

On the sixteenth step, Iris stopped. At last she heard the sound--it was a lament, a wail, a beseeching prayer.

It came from the the closet under the stairs.

"Sarah?" she whispered. The hairs on the back of her neck stood straight.

"Sarah, is that you?"

Iris closed her eyes and prayed.
Give me a miracle.

Iris does not find the miracle she wants, but as time passes she begins to see that all of life is its own miracle, in Elana K. Arnold's just published The Question of Miracles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Dealing with deep grief is a difficult subject, especially for middle readers just beginning to deal with mortality--mortality of friends, parents, and finally everyone around them. Arnold's sensitive narrative builds tension as Iris comes closer to understanding her own loss and finding a way to find joy in life despite her grief. The chilly gray rain brings new life from the garden Iris and her dad plant in early spring, and Iris begins to heal from her loss, even as she struggles with the eternal question of why some live and some die. With its difficult theme, this is perhaps not a book for everyone, but there are few young readers who won't benefit from Arnold's gentle story of the passage through grief to life.

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