4.10.2013

Currently Reading: The Young Unicorns

The Young Unicorns"Mr. Theo," Dave said, holding himself in control, "there is a difference between mollycoddling her and—"

"Sit down!" Mr. Theo bellowed. "You are talking about a twelve-year-old girl, and I am talking about an artist. I will not let her do anything that will hurt her music. Now sit still and listen—if you have ears to hear."

Shrugging, Dave stalked over to his favorite black leather chair by the marble fireplace.

Out in the hall by the coatrack, Emily managed to get her coat to stay on its hook; then, walking carefully but with the assurance of familiarity, she came back and sat down at one of the pianos. "Then why don't you let me give a concert if you think I'm a musician?"

Mr. Theotocopoulos took her hands in his. "Why could you not come straight home from school? Cannot that so-called orchestra get along without you? And your hands are too cold to be of any use for music at all." He began to massage her fingers. "You are too young for a concert. You would be not only a prodigy, you would be a blind child prodigy, and people would say, 'Isn't she marvelous, poor little thing?' and nobody would have heard you play at all. Is that what you want?"

Author: Madeleine L'Engle

Synopsis: Josiah "Dave" Davidson's ex-gang wants him back, but he's not interested in anything that will endanger his beloved young friend Emily. Nor is he interested in opening himself up to the Austins, the domestic, innocent family that cares for Emily and trusts Dave himself with their children. When the Alphabats' persistence proves to be part of a complex plot to take over New York, however, Dave finds that in order to protect Emily and the Austins, he must face and fight a number of shadowed, secretive enemies—including his own inability to trust.

Notes: The key to a good epigraph is finding something that sparks interest in the reader at the beginning but knocks him flat with its emotional voltage if he happens to re-read it afterward. L'Engle proved her epigraph-choosing mettle with the use of a sentence and a half referencing the untameability of the unicorn. It's a perfect fit for the story.

At least, it is to the reader like me who fires up with love for the young protagonist. Josiah—no, boy, I'm not just calling you Dave, not when there's so much beauty and dignity in your real name—is the sort to stir motherly impulses as well as sympathetic ones: a surly young introvert, too bitter to ask for help escaping the long-reaching tentacles of a dangerous past, but possessing a gentle heart and a nascent trustworthiness under the resentment and off-putting coldness. The story is of the crux moment of his life, the balance point where he either surrenders backward into the quicksand or accepts the outstretched hand above him and pulls free.

The third person omniscient narrative doesn't separate him from the reader, and I spent the book wanting to plead with him and fight for him and hug him by turns. None of which he'd have been likely to appreciate, but it's the reader's prerogative to feel.

L'Engle's naming choices often carry some symbolic value, and the connection of Josiah Davidson to the Davidic king of Israel is openly remarked on in the book and reinforced by his father's name. Nor is it the only name of interest, as exemplified by Canon Tallis—the surname references the Jewish prayer shawl—and Mr. Theotocopoulos, the latter of which suggests the Theotokos (the ancient Marian name 'God-bearer', usually brought into English as "mother of God"). Whether the common names are hand-picked for meaning is less clear, but there are some curious parallels—notably Emily Gregory, whose name loosely means "watchful rival"; she's the blinded but perceptive angel against the darkness in Josiah/Dave's past. And even the nickname Dave comes from the Hebrew for beloved.

As with most of L'Engle's work, the characters carry the book—which is really why I love her. There's so much back story to the main few that I felt like I'd missed a previous installment. Which, in the Austins' case, I suppose I had, but that feeling came more from Emily and Dave than the others. It's an interesting example of kicking off narrative in the middle of a story, anyway.

The novel attempts to work on several fronts and succeeds better on some than on others. As futuristic tale, it feels rather outdated; lasers were new technology in the sixties when the book was written, but now they're commonly used in surgeries without having gained any notable popularity as an alternative means of getting high. As mystery, the book is startlingly successful; all the clues were present, yet the plot twist still came as a stunner. As character study of an innocent family's brush with deadly evil, it's light but beautiful. As old-school young adult novel, it's saved from being annoyingly preachy only by its moments of unique wisdom. And as a story of redemption, it's sweet and, in its own simple way, astounding.

L'Engle's novels, while nearly always likable, are often a little uneven, especially when submitted to the test of time. This book isn't perfect, but the story caught me very personally and got into my affections. Where that wasn't owing to Josiah Davidson or Emily or the bright-eyed, bright-hearted little Rob, whom I also loved, it was owing to music.

Music got to play its own role in the book, and L'Engle knows her stuff. She makes numerous thoughtful references to great composers and works, such as the moment where Dave picks up his English horn and plays the solo from the prelude to the third act of Tristan and Isolde. And her scenes of Mr. Theo playing the cathedral organ are almost enough to make the reader feel the blast of sound coming from the pipes. The skill behind the art is also treated attentively; Emily's blindness combines with her musical prowess to give her an exceptional ability to listen as well as a powerful kinesthetic sense and memory. For such a short book, it's all spectacularly done.

The ending, if I'm being honest, is a little too much in the lessons-learned order. The groundwork is present, so the resolution itself is believable, but some of the dialogue toward the end is not, really. The final scene or two could certainly have been better handled.

That little flaw bothered me a bit, but love covers over a multitude of wrongs. I loved the story and the characters far too much to fail to forgive.

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