I’d like to say I liked this book. It has beautiful a flow, beautiful images, beautiful prose. Ms. Ursu has an amazing skill with the written word. Her subject has substance, her characters are many-faceted. Every thought is well-developed and wrapped up tight. She draws from no less than eleven well-known children’s stories and delivers a quality package. This could have rated with the greats, in my opinion, if it wasn’t so doggone depressing!
The first half of the book is pretty routine. Hazel and Jack are eleven-year-old next door neighbors and best friends. Hazel’s father has just left her mother to marry someone else, and she can’t seem to fit in at her new school. In addition, she’s struggling with her identity because she was adopted as a toddler. She’s sure she couldn’t manage at all without Jack’s solid friendship. But Jack is fighting his own battles. His mother has sunk into a depression so deep that he feels invisible. The overwhelming tone is one of pain, of unhappiness, of desperation.
Then Jack suddenly stops being her friend. And then he disappears.
At that halfway point, things suddenly go from normal to mystical. Jack is stolen away by an evil witch and Hazel is determined to rescue him, but her adventures turn very bizarre, almost allegorical. She meets a string of random-feeling characters, each with some sort of lesson attached. First came a ticking clock representing the passage of time. Then she met an evil woman who killed a swan (“She…wanted something she shouldn’t want. There are costs for that kind of thing…You can’t just kill a swan and wrap yourself in its skin, you know. It takes something from you. In her case it took the thing that she wanted most…beauty.”) Another character was a woodsman whose daughter wore magic shoes and could not stop dancing. (“She gave herself up to it. Sometimes people get so focused on things they don’t see the world around them.”) Then there was the couple who changed a series of hurting children into flowers. (“It’s too hard to be human.”)
But the common theme coming from these characters in the magical woods is that there’s no way Hazel can save Jack unless he wants to be saved. He was not kidnapped; he went with the witch willingly, because life as he knew it was simply too unbearable. This brought to mind a slew of situations to which this lesson could be applicable in the real world: drug abuse, eating disorders, suicide, alcoholism, etc. Life is painful, and people seek out ways to dull the pain regardless of how damaging these remedies can be. It’s a hard thing for Hazel to hear. “She had believed that because someone needs saving they were savable.” But that isn’t always the case, is it?
The advice Hazel is given is terrible. The woodsman lies. And the guard tells her the best way to handle her problems is to ignore them. (“I mean she’s (the witch) always waiting there, at the end of this place. All you can do is pretend she’s not there.”). The result? Hazel looks for help elsewhere! (“She had decided to throw her lot in with the wolves.”) How often, when kids are given no hope, do they look for it in wrong places? A lesson to adults to share the gift of true hope!
But Hazel will not give up. In the end, she loses everything, even her jacket (“This is what it is to live in the world. You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit.”), but she does find Jack. He’s content in his frozen state, however. The kisses of the witch (on the forehead) make him forget the pain. He’s happy in his oblivion.
Hazel’s determination and loyalty are admirable. (Whether or not she can persuade Jack to come back with her I won’t tell.) And the content is clean, but this book is very, very, very deep. I’d recommend ages 10 and up. It might be an appropriate read to start discussions, but keep in mind that you’ll have to find your hope outside this book. It does not provide any. It’s extremely well done, but a huge downer.
In conclusion, here’s a quote from the last quarter of Breadcrumbs. It will give you a very good feel for the predominant theme.“There was a boy, and he was your best friend. Your father left you. You left your mother. Come, the wind said, and I will blow you away. Come, the snow said, and I will bury you. Come, the cold said, and I will embrace you. Come. Come. And so she did.”