Friday, May 21, 2010

Poetry Friday: Crossing Stones

For April, in honor of National Poetry Month, my D.C. Kidlit book club read Helen Frost's novel in verse, Crossing Stones.

One of the things we discussed was how much we loved Frost's use of form to structure the telling of this war/homefront story. Set during America's involvement in World War I, the novel alternates between the free verse voice of eighteen-year-old Muriel Jorgensen, and cupped-hand sonnets written in the voices of two other characters: Muriel's best friend and cross-over-the-stream neighbor, Emma Norman, and Muriel brother, Ollie, who is far too young to go to war, but winds up there anyway.

Muriel's voice flows beautifully in the free verse sections:

"You'd better straighten out your mind, Young Lady.
             That's what the teacher, Mr. Sander, tells me. As if I could
                        stretch the corners of my thoughts like you'd pull
                                 a rumpled quilt across a bed in an attempt to make
                                    it look like no one slept there, no one ever
                                 woke up screaming from a nightmare, or lay there
                         sweating until their fever broke, everybody
               scared they'd die---but then they didn't, they got up
and made the bed. My mind sets off at a gallop
       down that twisty road, flashes by "Young Lady,"
                 hears the accusation in it---as if it's
                           a crime just being young, and "lady"
                                     is what anyone can see I'll never be
                            no matter how hard I try, and it's obvious
                  that I'm not trying."

Then in the cupped-hand sonnets strewn between this flow of words like stones in a river, we hear the more reserved thoughts of Emma, who is more traditional and contained in her expression, and from Muriel's brother, Ollie, whose thoughts begin in naively well-shaped excitement and slowly turn darker and more powerful as the war's reality overtakes him, eating away at the shape of his life.

                                                  Dread weighs me down
                                            like a rain-soaked wool jacket.
                                       We move in the night, through towns
                                     where little girls like Grace must be asleep
                                  in their warm beds, through countryside where
                                cats toss mice around in dark corners of the barns.
                             One thing bothers me: I don't know the overall plan.
                             None of us do. They're moving us to the battlefront,
                             that's obvious. I'm sure they have a strategy for use to
                               win; maybe they'll fill us in. To tell the truth, I don't
                                 care as much about their lofty goals as I do about
                                     seeing my family again---there's a man on a
                                       bike, pedaling into the morning, bringing
                                               bread home to his family, I bet.

The story itself weaves together both the horror of World War I and the political realities of the homefront, including fascinating glimpses into the Women's Suffrage Movement. It's a beautiful, beautiful book, made even more so by the attention Frost has paid to form, using the very shape of words to carefully place her story, stone by stone, into your heart and mind.

You can read more excerpts from Crossing Stones here, but I recommend you go ahead and buy the whole beautiful thing. As I blogged on Wednesday, Kidsmomo is looking for kids' reviews of war/homefront stories for Memorial Day, and this book, while more in the YA category, would be excellent for a perceptive teen to read and respond to.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by author and poet, Laura Purdie Salas. 


  1. I first heard of this book a few months ago, when I thought it might work as a comp. title for my own novel-in-verse. Thank you for this beautiful glimpse. This is one I need to read.

    I'm hosting a verse novel challenge (5 books by the end of 2010), if you'd like to join me!

  2. Thanks for the sample poems and your thoughts. Wish I could have attended the Book Club meeting last month. It really looks like a beautiful book.

  3. How I love the shaping on these. The curves to the lines add so much visually, almost as much overall as reading the poems aloud.

  4. Sara, thanks for this review! I just read KEESHA'S HOUSE last month, and I still need to read
    CROSSING STONES. I really enjoyed DIAMOND WILLOW, too. I'm making this title next on my list.

  5. Sara,

    Thanks for your take on this book. It is on my reading list.

    Laura Evans
    all things poetry

  6. Thanks, Sara. I liked this book, too, but can't help thinking I'd have found even more to admire if I'd been in your book club. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into what you found.

  7. I'm still stuck on how charming the phrase "cupped hand sonnet" is. Y'know?

  8. LOVE this book!

    I'm reading aloud Diamond Willow to my 4th graders now -- they have copies of the book (giving thanks for the public library) so they can see the shapes of the poems and find the hidden messages.

    I can't wait to see what she'll come up with next -- it'll be fabulous!

  9. I've beens so busy reading novels for our new curriculum this year, I haven't had much time to read anything else. Summer is coming, and I hope to finally get a chance to catch up on some of the wonderful verse novels published this year starting with Crossing Stones. Thank you for reminding me to order it! : )


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