Hardcover, 384 pages
Published August 26th 2014 by Clarion Books
Greenglass House by Kate Milford was nominated for a national book award and prior to reading it, I had begun seeing it cropping up everywhere: on book haul videos on youtube, on book haul posts on blogs I read, people tweeting about it and instagramming it. I dismissed the hype as I usually do because following the hype has led me to some pretty bad experiences and decided to just plunge into the book without any preconceived notions except for the ones evoked by the absolutely gorgeous cover.
The novel is set in the titular Greenglass house, an inn, and focuses on Milo, the twelve year old adopted son of the inn keepers and the events that conspire during a week or so when unexpected guests and the inn keepers (and son) are snowed in due to a blizzard. Strange things are afoot in the inn and Milo is helped by the cook’s daughter, Meddy, in figuring out what is going with the guests.
My synopsis brings very little colour to the narrative that is bursting with it but just take it as it is.
The framing technique is used very effectively in this novel. The framing occurs twice (as it does in Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan). First is through fiction in the form of a book given to Milo by a guest which contains stories set in the area in which the inn is located. The second frame is the roleplaying game that allows Milo to become someone else and view events and people through a separate pair of eyes that belong to him and yet…not. This has the effect of introducing different narratives into the primary one: one as the adventurer the character Milo is roleplaying is, another as the young annoyed kid who is not able to enjoy his vacation on account of the unexpected visitors. Then another is the insertion of the history and meaning that comes with the introduction of the stories.
There are two main conflicts in the story: one is the internal conflict Milo faces; his sense of Otherness as a Chinese kid adopted by white parents and his efforts to reconcile himself to the family he has instead of the family that, as far as he is concerned, abandoned him. The other one is an external conflict and concerns the inn’s guests who all have, maybe sinister, motives for their presence.
Yet another framing occurs when like Boccaccio’s Decameron the inn’s guest each tell a story to while away the winter evenings they have to spend snowed in. All these different storytelling elements are connected in a very skillful way that illustrates Milford’s expertise as a storyteller.
I did find the pacing a bit slow but I got over it when the action started in earnest. I liked how Meddy contributes to the story. In fact, all the separate stories contribute to the primary one in sometimes minor and sometimes major ways that shows how complex the novel truly is.
I must mention the twist at the end because though I pride myself on being able to predict which turn a story is going to take, this time I was left utterly flummoxed. I hadn’t expected the twist and when it came, whoa. Things made so much more sense then. I won’t say anything else about it except to say: wow.
This book is very important for many reasons and the forefront of them is the discourse it begins on the experiences of adopted kids into families of a different race or colour. Milo understandably has to contend with the guilt he feels for wanting to know more about his birth parents. The author’s note at the end mentions that the author and her partner are looking into international adoption and the book is, in part, a result of her considering what her future child will go through.
On a lighter note, the book tells a fantastic story about swashbuckling pirates, magic fables, wish granting well spirits and the mystery of the guests at the inn. Definitely recommended for both adult readers and the target audience.