Midwinterblood: Mark’s Take

Mom,

So, I read Midwinterblood and I have to say, I’m somewhat surprised by your enthusiastic response.  I agree that there is a lot to like about Sedgwick’s novel, first and foremost its risk-taking, but I also found a lot of it to be troublesome, and it didn’t really cohere for me.

First, the good. When I read your description of the book, the section I was least looking forward to was the first chapter, set in 2073–I’m not a big SF reader, and futuristic stuff tends to fall flat for me. But I was very impressed with that first chapter.  The mystery of the western half of the island, the dragon flower tea, the lack of children, the strange bond between Eric and Merle–there were just so many intriguing threads to it, and I loved the ending of the chapter, with Eric being sacrificed (although, as I’ll get to in a minute, the rest of the book somewhat undercut the ending of the chapter for me). 

Beyond that, I loved the structure of moving backwards through time, and the recurring themes and characters showing up in different times.  It just occurred to me this morning that the book has a lot in common with Darren Aronofsky’s much maligned (in my opinion, undeservedly) film The Fountain, with tells the story of two characters, played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, living in the past, the present, and the future, as Jackman’s character attempts to save Weisz’s by locating the fountain of youth in each period.

That said, I just didn’t feel that Sedgwick’s seven stories cohered in any meaningful way, the way Aronofsky’s film did (for me, at least).  To explain, I think we have to start at the end (the beginning?).  The last chapter (before the epilogue), shows Eric’s sacrifice and the promise by Merle to remain with him through seven lifetimes.  Presumably, this explains what was going on in the previous six chapters, but for me, it really didn’t explain much at all.  First of all because, um . . . why did Eric and Merle love each other so much?  We never see it, really in any of the sections, but most importantly not in that final one–it is just stated outright as fact. 

This is made especially strange because of the variety of permutations Eric and Merle’s relationship shows up in: brother and sister, mother and son, lovers, and complete strangers.  I suppose you could argue that Sedgwick is arguing that love is love is love, but for me, this variety made the message very diffuse.  To take the most egregious example, inthe chapter about the WWII airman, Eric is on the island and Merle is . . . the airman’s daughter back home in England? what?  Yes, Eric sacrifices himself here, but not really for Merle at all.  In fact, if I were on the Printz committee, I think all I would need to not this book out of contention is a close reading of the airman chapter, which really drags down the whole book. 

It is also a perfect example of another problem, which is that Sedgwick spends an alarming amount of energy in the first 3 stories on creating characters who are not important to the story of Eric and Merle–the airman, the archaeologists: shouldn’t he be spending that time making us believe in how much Eric and Merle love each other?  Then there’s the connection between the archaeological dig and the folktale told in a later section: who were the two buried bodies? According to the folktale it is Tor and Eric (who was sacrificing himself for Merle, kinda-but-I-didn’t-really-buy-it), right? except that section was told as a folktale that had alternate versions, so what exactly are we to make of the real archaeological evidence?  Is the story in which it is Merle and Erika just a myth, or is it another life they lived through? Because then wouldn’t that add an extra life to the cycle?

Finally, after loving that first chapter so much, I just found myself very unsatisfied by how little of the mystery of that chapter was developed.  The dragon flower seemed like just a hug a red herring.  Did it have any significance later on in the book?  It didn’t seem to.  I never really got a sense of who Tor was, why the dragon flower, why the island at all, why the islanders in 2073 are ritually sacrificing Eric instead of just killing him, or letting his memory go with the dragon flower tea.

As for Printz candidates, I’ll still stand by 17& Gone as my top choice so far, with Yellowcake, Pieces, and Jim Ottaviani’s Primates in a much better place for contention than Midwinterblood.  But maybe I’m wrong–did I miss something huge in Midwinterblood?

– Mark

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6 Comments

Filed under Awards, Books, Teens

6 responses to “Midwinterblood: Mark’s Take

  1. I agree that the theme of love might have been better explored if the book had stuck to one form of love (romantic love, sibling love, parent-child love, pick one). In exploring multiple forms of love rather than focusing on one, Sedgwick winds up distracting us from the point by missing the opportunity to have an overarching plot (as perhaps “The Fountain” had). The book was less of a story and more of a…meditation…on sacrifice in general and love in general, with a sort of grab-bag of motifs (the number seven, the hare, the moon, the apples, bones, and so on) that sometimes seemed to be smoke and mirrors to “tell” me that the vignettes were linked (with the exception of the dragon flower, see below*). I was sorry not to find myself aching for anybody’s love, because none of the loves were fleshed out enough for me in their short vignettes. It became a list of sacrifices through time and a list of love relationships through time, and I felt detached. Compare this with BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND, where there was a strong overall arc to Lanagan’s vignettes, making them a cohesive story, perhaps because we always had the character of Misskaela as a thread to represent the eternity of the island’s problems.

    That said, gosh, MIDWINTERBLOOD is beautifully written, with an artful, subtle repetition of language that successfully lulls you into feeling the eternal rhythm of life and sacrifice that is the human condition. It’s incredibly atmospheric. And hooray for the fact that it’s shooting so high–to be real art rather than a giant blockbuster trilogy. (Don’t get me wrong, both are good.) And that it pushes the boundary of YA by exploring what it means to be human rather than specifically adolescent. And that a painting can tickle Sedwick’s fancy enough to make him write a book. All of this makes it special, and well worth reading.

    *The dragon flower was the symbol that seemed to mesh well with the theme of sacrifice in the book. In the end (a little belatedly, I think) we learn that it extends life at the expense of preventing childbearing. Thus, you can sacrifice a longer life for the sake of having children. A nice metaphor for all the selfish things we give up for our kids.

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  5. Glad I wrote my review before I read yours, since you said it all perfectly first!

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