I had the opportunity to read a digital-ARC of this title from NetGalley in exchange for this review. I am so happy that I read this book, because it was just fantastic! I was expecting it to be pretty good, as a lot of people whose opinions I respect have said positive things about it. But I was still just blown away by how well-written and engaging this story is. I devoured the book in one day, because I just couldn't put it down!
The book opens with twelve-year-old Carolina on a hot, dusty ride in a pick-up truck with her father. Her mom and baby brother are following behind in another car. They are on their way to the desert ranch of Grandpa Serge, who is suffering from dementia. No one in the family is looking forward to this visit, as they are going to be getting the ranch ready to be sold and moving Grandpa into an assisted living facility. Carolina would much rather be spending the summer with her friends enjoying swimming, barbecues and shopping trips.
Carolina has never even met Grandpa Serge. But as her family is working long days packing, cleaning and repairing the decrepit property, Carolina finds herself looking after this prickly old man who often seems lost inside his own strange memories. The more time she spends with him, the more she feels drawn to him and his storytelling. Grandpa's story centers on a special tree that is a gift from God, a green-glass lake, and a love story for the ages.
The story that Grandpa Serge tells weaves its way through the history of the land and the family, with threads of magic and reality overlapping and intermingling with each other. As I was reading, Lindsay Eager's narrative style reminded me a lot of "Tuck Everlasting" by Natalie Babbitt and "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein. There is a sense of timelessness in Grandpa's tale, and both the reader and Carolina can't be quite sure what is fantasy and what is reality. I love that even after I have finished reading the novel, I'm still wondering about it and drawing my own conclusions.
Eagar does a wonderful job of using description to help readers immerse themselves into the story right away. From the moment I started the book, I was there with this family, even though I have never been to the desert Southwestern part of our country. I'm with Carolina as she steps "onto the scorching desert dust, so hot my sandals are useless. The air feels like it'll drown me. I grab my Gatorade from the truck and take a swig."
In another passage: "The desert seems alive and breathing, a huge, sandy monster that sucks moisture from bones and blows the dry, dry air up, where it rolls and churns and boils."
The author also captures the thoughts and feelings of the characters as they all settle into the dismal circumstances of the summer. Carolina is only twelve and all of her life has been spent in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She's used to being with her friends, and living in a comfortable house, and having all of the conveniences of modern life. She's never visited Grandpa Serge or this sheep ranch that is in the middle of nowhere. As she first begins talking to her dad's father she notices that "the name 'Grandpa' tastes weird. It doesn't fit. 'Grandpa' is for someone who always keeps his cookie jar full, someone who gives bear hugs, someone who keeps a straight face while spinning a yarn at the dinner table."
From the first day of this visit, it becomes clear that the desert surroundings are full of dangerous elements. They encounter rattlesnakes, coyotes, and blistering heat. "Death lurks around every corner of this ranch. It's under the porch, slithering around Lu (her baby brother). It's dragging sheep out of their pasture to eat them alive. It's sleeping in scaly piles on the ridge."
As the story unfolds, there is such beautiful character development as they learn the lessons and messages that are really perfect for everyone. This book is full of great messages for all readers. All of the installments of Serge's story are tied to the message that "the roots of a tree stretch deeper than you think; no matter how far away you are when you bloom, you are always tied to your roots."
As the family gets the house and ranch ready to be sold, the theme of "roots" is constantly at the forefront of the story. Everyone in the family has a lesson to learn about this. There are also lessons about how we measure time and how changes are one way of doing this. There is also a theme of circles in stories and in life: "Stories don't end, they just turn into new beginnings." And one of my favorite messages in this book is that being afraid to live is much worse than dying. "Squeeze the juice out of every day; do not be afraid to live...and you will not be afraid to die."
I'm so excited about this book. I know that I'm going to have to read it over and over again. It's definitely a book that I want to have in my classroom library. And I am quite certain that this will be a very important and popular book this year!
Hardcover, 368 pages
Expected publication: March 8th 2016 by Candlewick Press