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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Firebird," "Thor's Wedding Day"


"Firebird," Susan Gates, Puffin; 2005; 212pp.

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Truth is a double-edged sword -- that's what author Susan Gates cautions young readers in this coming-of-age novel about a young girl called Firebird who opens a Pandora's box of family secrets that bring great pain and yet set her free.

Thirteen-year-old Firebird and her twin brother, Ford, have never been to school. In fact, they have never been to the city, or even stepped out of the swamp that they call home. They lead reclusive lives with their father, Trapper, and their grandmother, catching eels for a living and marking time by the changing advertisements on the giant highway-billboard that shields their home from public view.

But these days, the billboard reads: "Live your dreams" and to Firebird, this seems almost like an exhortation to explore life beyond the swamp. Everything she knows of the world outside is in the form of stories from Gran -- and it isn't good. The city is a terrible place, she's been told, no place for a girl who takes after her mother as much as Firebird does. All that Firebird knows of her mother, Loreal, is that she grew up loving the swamp and died giving birth to Ford and her. Now, even the thought of leaving the swamp reeks of betrayal.

Not all is well, though, in the wild wetland that has been home to Trapper and his family for generations. The summers are hotter; there are more mosquitoes than ever; and then Ford sees his father emptying the eels they've been catching into the river, instead of taking them down to the smokery. Firebird is making some startling discoveries of her own about where the family income is actually coming from. It becomes evident that Trapper hasn't been playing straight with his children and Gran is complicit in the crime.

While Ford is in denial that the truth has changed things forever, Firebird turns confrontational. Although she discovers a head-on collision with the truth is rarely painless, there are sometimes pleasing revelations to be found alongside uncomfortable ones. Like, for example, who her mother was and, most importantly, who she really is.

There's something strange about people like Trapper who want to hold on to life in a swamp, of all places, but also something oddly familiar about holding on to what we know. All the way to the dramatic build-up at the novel's end, Gates' suspenseful story is a sensitive exploration of the loss of childhood and of how self-discovery begins when you learn to let go.

Note: For teens.

"Thor's Wedding Day," Bruce Coville, Harcourt; 2005; 117pp.

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Norse myth was not meant to generate mirth -- at least not most of it. But lucky for us, author Bruce Coville stumbled upon the "Thrymskvitha," a poem that pokes fun at the Norse gods, and it inspired him to do so, too, in "Thor's Wedding Day."

This hilarious tale of how Thor, the god of thunder, lost his hammer, Mjollnir, to the giant Thrym and how he got it back is told by Thor's goat-boy, Thialfi. Now this isn't just because Thialfi tells the tale pretty well -- being on the sidelines, he's able to observe the whimsical ways of the celestial beings of Asgard -- but also because Thialfi has something to do with the disappearance of the hammer in the first place. It's only fair, then, that he join hands with Gat-Tooth and Grinder, his goat-charges, to retrieve it.

It isn't going to be easy for a mere mortal like Thialfi to meddle in the affairs of the gods and set things right. So Thialfi adopts the "It wasn't me" stance so typical of humans, at least at first, and prays that Thor will figure out how to save Asgard from downfall. That isn't going to happen, though, because Thor is as unintelligent as he is strong. And Thrym wants nothing less in exchange for the hammer than Freya, goddess of love, to be his bride. But our loving goddess has a temper to match and refuses to hear anything about becoming the wife to a giant whose beard bears morsels of his last meal.

Then Loki, god of mischief, comes up with an idea: Thor will go to Thrym, disguised as Freya. Before you know it, massive and mighty Thor is dressed in female finery befitting a bride, although the corset takes some real tugging to get around his waist! And while Thor and "bridesmaid" Loke dine with the giants, it is up to Thialfi to find the hammer and get it back to Thor -- before he blows his cover.

The result is a hugely funny adventure starring cross-dressing gods, talking goats and a warm sense of humor that you wish Norse mythology had more of. This is also a great introduction to the world of Norse myth -- the author doesn't forget to suggest some additional reading in case you get hooked by his account of how Thor got his hammer back.

Note: For children 8-12 years old.


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