CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 18 . . . .May 13, 2005
So says Anders the grizzly bear, king of the forest, in Patrick Carman's fantasy novel. Carman presses all the time-tested buttons to create a suspenseful tale. A decoding stone found in a forest pool, hidden letters, and talking animals—all add to the magic. There are some new elements: jewels in cat collars provide clues, and convicts are the source of fear in the kingdom of Elyon.
Certain elements suggest to this adult reader that Elyon exists somewhere in the "New World," in the northern hemisphere, in the 1600s. Moveable type is available in this culture which has the wheel, but not the internal combustion engine. Place names are Anglo Saxon. "Bridewell" echoes Thomas Hardy and Evelyn Waugh. "Lunenburg" made me wonder about a Nova Scotia setting for a while until I realized that I was mistaken. Young readers, however, will probably not pick up on such words as clues to another level of meaning but will accept the story at face value.
Carman begins in medias res, spinning his tale through the heart and mind of Alexa Daley, a strong female protagonist, 12-years-old. Alexa is travelling by horse drawn vehicle with her father who is one of a triumvirate administering the towns of Lunenburg, Lathbury and Bridewell, which make up the "kingdom" of Elyon. "Our kingdom was a wagon wheel made of stone," says Alexa, referring to the walled routes linking the three walled cities.
Alexa's father is one of three co-rulers or administrators (not kings). Old Warvold, the founder and head of state, administers Lunenburg, and a man named Ganesh administers Bridewell. Old Warvold, who began life as an orphan in the nearby town of Ainsworth, travelled the world and, on returning, persuaded people to settle in the area "which everybody believed was haunted, dark and dangerous."
This sounds like the North American wilderness as described by some of its earliest settlers. Good fantasy, like its cousin, science fiction, starts out from reality. One thinks of Gulliver's Travels or The Odyssey in which the hero starts out from an actual, real, historical place. The author of The Dark Hills Divide, however, does not explain where the "people" came from. Could they have come from Europe to North America? If so, there is an explanation for the presence of convicts in Ainsworth. Prior to the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, England transported prisoners to Virginia. Afterwards, they sent them to parts of Australia.
Early in the novel, readers learn that Warvold, the founder of the "kingdom," offered to house 300 criminals from Ainsworth for 10 years and then return them. His offer was accepted, and he employed the convicts in building the walled roads and the walls around the cities.
Alexa "burns to feel the freedom of forests and mountains." She is with Old Warvold, a grandfather figure, when he dies. Pervis, captain of the Bridewell guards, catches her with a spyglass looking over the wall to the forest and reports her to the triumvirate, but her father ignores the complaint and notes that some day, with Warvold's son, Alexa will run the realm.
As the administration discusses the threat of domination by Ainsworth, Alexa finds a way out of the walled city and meets a little man, Yipes, who takes her into the mountains. There, she finds a magical rock which enables her to understand the speech of animals.
In contrast to the walled city, with its dark passageways and human conflicts, the forest is charming. Such creatures as Darius the wolf, Ander the grizzly and Malcolm the squirrel, cry out to be in a Disney movie. Ander informs Alexa that the convicts never were returned to Ainsworth, but live in caves in the Dark Hills and plan to take over the cities.
Can Alexa find the convict who has infiltrated the administration with a view to overthrowing the government? With Malcolm, the talking squirrel at her side, and the Bridewell Library as an unexpected resource, you bet she can!
In a world where the Great Wall of China still exists (albeit as a tourist attraction) and where, in recent years, one great wall has come down and another is going up, a novel which advocates open societies is worth reading. Carman deserves praise for making the Bridwell library so central to the story, thus emphasizing the importance of literacy, history and general knowledge. Who cares if The Dark Hills Divide fails to rise to another level of meaning, as did its ancestors (like Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels)? Patrick Carman wrote the novel as a story for his daughters who loved it. Other children will, too.
Ruth Olson Latta has a Master of Arts degree from Queen's University, Kingston, ON. Her most recent book is Tea With Delilah, a mystery, published by Baico Publishing, Gatineau, PQ.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.