A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .
A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.
I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous. A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel? Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.
But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief. So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.
Ren is one of just three white characters. In the second world, there are two major groups. The Raftworlders mostly have dark skin with textured hair. They sail and live on a large network of interconnected rafts which reminded me of nothing so much as an updated version of LeGuin’s raft island in The Farthest Shore. They stop at various islands as they sail all over the world, eventually returning to the only populated land.
The Tathenlanders are not as specifically typed to a people from our world, but read mostly as Asian. They could also be indigenous and have thick straight hair and dark skin. There has been some intermingling of the two groups, so visual appearance alone doesn’t indicate where someone is from. Tathenlanders live on land so are able to produce some items the Raftworlders can’t, like wool from sheep or fruit from deep rooted trees, while Raftworlders scavenge items that are unlikely to reach Tathenn.
For the first third of the book, we follow separate but related stories of these two groups. The focus is mainly on two siblings. Pip is magically gifted, but also struggles with severe facial blindness. The insults and challenges he’s faced have caused his older sister Kinchen to be highly protective of him. Within this part of the narrative are also stories that give insight into the past of both peoples, whether the recent or far distant past.
At 140 pages into the book, both of the previous narratives stop and we are plunged into a new story for a hundred pages. This one is set in reality, which the book calls the First World. We meet a boy named Thanh and his sister and the other mostly-unrelated, semi-family they end up with on a small boat. Thanh is a bit of a dreamer, and not very well suited to his life.
Some readers will have trouble with this transition, and because of the big gap, I wouldn’t recommend this as a read aloud where you spread the reading out over a long period of time. It could work well if condensed into a short time such as a road trip, but if you read only a few pages a day, most children would forget important plot points by the time the threads of the story come together. The fantasy is deeply ingrained, and draws from several sources. To tell about it in detail would steal some of the wonder and give away plot points, so trust me that magic is integral.
This is not a light or easy read. Characters go missing, die, and are forever parted. Misfortune strikes just about every character at some point. Yet I was impressed by how this never crossed the line out of MG-appropriate. Nothing is ignored, but many topics are just hinted at, or subtly referenced in a way that will make older readers nod or shake their heads while young readers not ready for those topics will gloss right over them.
Content warnings are as murky as the depths of the sea. Slavery. Disease. Murder by drowning, imprisonment, gun violence, piracy, kidnapping, ableist commentary/thinking (rejected), threats of violence against women, death, family separation, adoption, failed adoption, and corrupt politics. It certainly isn’t a fluffy fantasy read. But there is that sense of hope which frequently distinguishes a MG treatment of a topic. The characters are always moving forward, some against their will, but all progressing somehow.
The artwork is excellent. Without being forced into a format, it truly complements the story and brings to life key moments. Shimizu captures the moments of highest emotion, and renders them poignantly.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel and, barring #ownvoice reviews from some of the groups represented, would recommend. Like most Americans, the Zong story was new to me and the difficult balance of the disparate voices was managed better than I expected.