Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Secret of Harper's Woods: The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

There had always been talk of a white deer in Harper's Woods. Eric Harper has always wanted to see it, but when he spots a flash of white through the trees, he discovers something else.

The animal stepped away from the underbrush.

It wasn't a deer.

White and glowing, with slender legs and a long curved neck, it raised its head. and I knew. Ponies don't have coats that shimmer like a pearl. And there's never been a pony born with an ivory horn curling from the center of its forehead.

It was a unicorn. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

Eleven-year-old Eric is filled with a sense of joy unlike anything he's known. He quietly follows the shimmering figure as it limps toward the old farmhouse and barn where his family had lived always until Eric's dad was forced to sell part of the land to pay for his grandmother's nursing home. As he peers through a dusty window in the barn and sees their new neighbor, the veterinarian, Dr. Brancusi, speaking softly to unicorn as she treats her hoof, he is discovered by the vet's angry daughter Allegra. But when Dr. Brancusi learns that Maggie Harper is Eric's grandmother, she surprisingly accepts him, allowing him to listen through her stethoscope to the heartbeats of the twins the unicorn, Moonpearl, is carrying, and swearing him to secrecy, offers him a job helping care for her animal patients.

In due time Eric meets some of Dr. Brancusi's other mystical creatures, Timothy, a talking white cat with an invisible midsection, Prissy, an irascible goose who happens to lay a golden egg now and then, and the Squonk, a strange brown jelly-like thing that lives in a jar of murky water and sometimes sings exquisitely beautiful songs at night. And when his school friend Jamal brings in his gravely ill dog, Eric gets to see the magical powers of Moonpearl's horn cure the pet. Eric begins to save the long white hairs from Moonpearl's coat for a bracelet to help his grandmother. They seem to cure her arthritic hands and Eric hopes that a necklace he and Allegra make will return Grandmother to health.

But trespassing hunters in Harper's Woods, hoping to bag the white deer. spot something white in the woods.

Gunshots! I caught sight of neon orange, a hunter's vest. I crept closer. There were two of them.

I saw a flash of white near a thicket. There was a shot and a yowling sound. Timothy! Those morons were shooting at Timothy!

I stepped out from behind the tree, yelling. "Aaah!" I screamed. My left leg was on fire. I felt blood soaking through my jeans.

Eric's leg has only a minor wound, but in rapid order things take a significant turn. His dad discovers the magical nature of some of Dr. Brancusi's patients, Moonpearl takes this time to have her babies, and Grandmother has a heart attack and Eric fears he will lose the only one who understands how he feels about the creatures. And when Grandmother Harper dies, Eric feels lost in the swirl of events.

But Grandmother leaves him a personal letter which explains everything.

If you are reading this I must be gone. There are other things, wonderful, magical things that appear in our woods. We Harpers have always looked out for them. I always knew that you would be the one.

Jacqueline K. Ogburn's reverent but magical story, The Unicorn in the Barn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) is gentle and sweet, both a fantasy adventure and a tender coming-of-age story of a young boy who feels a calling for his family's long held a unique relationship with the creatures of their land, ordinary and extraordinary. Eric assumes his role as one of the two Harpers who bear the family responsibility to protect that spirit of goodness that the unicorn represents in this moving magical tale of family and mysteries beyond things seen. Children who are drawn to myths and imaginings just beyond the real will find that this extraordinary novel points to more than a literary brush with the supernatural.

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