Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Foreshadowing: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend's life, and my own.

I ask two favors.

First, you must write me a letter.

Second, please remember to mention the location of your housekey.

The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you.

Foreshadowing. If ever an English teacher needed a novel which illustrates the power of that oft-taught literary device, it is this one.

Up until the moment twelve-year-old Miranda finds a cryptic note, in tiny writing, mysteriously sticking out of the unread library book in her backpack, her worries have been normal enough. She's a little embarrassed to have her friend visit the shabby apartment where she lives with her mother. She resents her wealthy classmate Julia, whom it seems is pampered enough to complain the lack of cafe au lait-colored construction paper to match her skin in her self-portrait in art class--Julia, whom classmate Annemarie has known forever and is now Miranda's rival for her friendship. Miranda misses the closeness with Sal, her friend from daycare days, who has seemed to avoid her since he was inexplicably punched in the street by a boy named Marcus. She worries about a strange homeless man who sleeps with his head under a mailbox and calls out "Smart girl!" when she walks by on the way from school. And now someone has stolen her mom's emergency house key, hidden in the nozzle of a fire hose in the stairway landing.

Miranda is a girl who tries to face her worries head on. But when she tries to talk to Marcus about his reason for hitting Sal, he strangely deflects her attention to her well-read copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

He pointed at my book. "Time travel. Some people think it's possible. Except those ladies lied, at the beginning of the book."

"What do you mean, they lied?"

"...Remember? They land in the broccoli. So if they had gotten home five minutes before they left, like those ladies promised they would, then they would have seen themselves get back. Before they left."

In all, four of these notes are found in strange places. On the first really cold day of fall, Miranda finds the second frightening note at the bottom of a pocket of her last-year's parka in the coat closet:

You will want proof.
3 p.m. today: Colin's knapsack.
Christmas Day: Tesser well.
April 27th: Studio TV-15

One by one the prophesied events occur, just as the mysterious note had promised. Miranda finds something in Colin's bag that even he could not have know would be there when he arrived at school that day. At Christmas she is given an autographed first edition of A Wrinkle in Time, with a handwritten inscription which reads "Miranda, Tesser well.--Madeleine L'Engle." Finally, her mother's application to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid is accepted--for Studio 15 on April 27.

Now Miranda believes that she has a friend whose life will be saved. But who and when? How? By whom? And why?

Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009) was awarded the 2010 Newbery Award--and for good reason. This is a rare novel, with depth, solid characterizations, a vivid setting anchored in late 1970s Manhattan, and an amazing twist of plot in the conclusion that--despite the "thread" which ties almost every word, every change of tense, even every chapter heading together in a fabric of foreshadowing--cannot be foretold by any but the most prescient reader. Every detail is at last untied, like the knots that Miranda loves to tie, but still there remains an only partially rent veil over the central theme, the very nature of time itself. As Marcus tried to explain to Miranda,

"It's probably because of your common sense. You can't accept the idea of arriving before you leave, the idea that every moment is happening at the same time, that it's US who are moving--"

But don't just take my word for it. Here's what the New York Times reviewer had to say:

In this taut novel, every word, every sentence, has meaning and substance. A hybrid of genres, it is a complex mystery, a work of historical fiction, a school story and one of friendship, with a leitmotif of time travel running through it. Most of all the novel is a thrilling puzzle. Stead piles up clues on the way to a moment of intense drama, after which it is pretty much impossible to stop reading until the last page.

See for yourself. Read this book.

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