Monday, February 24, 2014

Last Quest: Doll Bones by Holly Black

Alice inhaled sharply, and Zach followed her gaze. She was staring at the doll. Its head was turned like it was looking out the window.

"Poppy!" he said. "Stop messing around."

"What?" She turned back to look at them, like she was oblivious. He hadn't seen her turn the Queen's head, but she must have. The doll didn't move on its own--had never left the case, needed them to bring it to the grave. It didn't move.

He really hoped it didn't move.

"You know where we're going, right? You know which cemetery we're going to, right?" He thought back to the moment they got on the bus back home and how he'd asked her almost the same thing.

"The grave is under a willow tree," said Poppy. "Eleanor will tell us the rest."

For years Zach and Alice had let Poppy direct them in the game. Zach contributed his action figures, William the pirate and his followers, and Alice added her two mermaid dolls. Poppy contributed the game's framework, based on a very old bone-china doll shut up for perhaps a century in a tall case in her house, the one they called the Queen, protected and served by her minions, William and Alice's figures. The game was the center of their friendship, and there was an unspoken pact that no one else must know what they played in their secret place.

But Zach is twelve, becoming a star on his middle school basketball team, understanding that he has to keep the game with two girls a secret from his friends. And when his dad, until recently estranged from the family, decides that he's too old to play with dolls and sends William and the rest of his action figures off in the trash, Zach can't bring himself to explain to Poppy and Alice what has happened and abruptly settles for telling them that he won't play the game anymore.

But then Poppy has a dream--a dream in which the porcelain doll comes to her as a murdered girl, Eleanor Kirchner, a girl whose bones were used to make the bone-china doll in the cabinet. The ghost in the dream implores Poppy to bury her in her family grave, one "under the willow tree," so that she can rest in peace. Pale and serious, Poppy begs her friends to go with her to find that grave and bury the doll. Alice and Zach find themselves drawn into the pact, protesting that they do not believe in ghosts, but somehow drawn by the bonds of friendship and by the intriguing idea of such a daring adventure, a quest.

But disturbing events begin as soon as they board a 2:30 A.M. bus for the nearby town where the doll was made. A crazy homeless man seems to see four of them, Zach, Poppy, Alice, and "the blonde." When they stop in a diner, the waitress tells them she has only one table for four left, and Zach begins to wonder if the ghost of Eleanor is visible to others, if not to them. And when the three hide out in the town library, Zach discovers an out-of-the-way gallery, exhibiting the work of the apparently deranged bone-china artist, Lukas Kirchner, whose daughter Eleanor had disappeared without a trace. Now Zach, too, believes that their Queen, the doll whose porcelain was made from clay and bones, contains the remains of Eleanor Kirchner, and that they have no choice but to finish their quest with her burial beneath her family's gravestone. There is only the hard-headed Alice to convince.

Alice rolled her eyes. "We're not zombies just because we like stuff you don't."

"No, you're right," said Poppy. "We had a story, and our story was important. I hate that both of you can just walk away and do what you're supposed to do ... and leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it feels like dying.

But Alice goes along, unable to admit that she is drawn into this mysterious adventure as much as the others, and before the three friends find childhood's end together at the foot of a gravestone carved with a willow tree, they find something else that they will always share, in Holly Black's 2014 Newbery Honor Book, Doll Bones (Margaret K. Elderry Books, 2013). The Queen is dead and buried at last, but Holly Black's enthralling story will keep her story alive for many readers. As Zach says, "Quests are supposed to change us." And in Holly Black's cracking-good coming-of-age novel set on the knife's edge of reality and the supernatural, readers will find mystery and challenge; they will be changed, along with the three friends, perhaps perceiving that their reality is also a story that they are creating as well.

Black, the creator of the best-selling The Spiderwick Chronicles series, knows how to spin a supernatural-tinged tale with the best of them, a story that reminds us that there's another dimension just beyond real life in our own  imagination. Says the New York Times reviewer, "For the 10-12 year-old reader...Doll Bones may be perfect....It’s a deep, strange and compelling book, at times lovely, at times heartbreaking and deliciously weird.”

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