If you haven’t read any books by Frances O’Roark Dowell, you really ought to. She’s a brilliant writer and storyteller: while her books are simple, her stories are actually quite sophisticated, with subtle dark undertones.
This book is pretty much all that I’ve come to expect from Dowell. It’s simple: the story of a somewhat neglected girl — Isabel Bean, age 10 — with an aura of the otherworldly about her. She doesn’t really have friends, and while she’s not a bad student or child, she doesn’t really seem to fit in at all. Her mother isn’t very motherly, and Isabel drowns that neglect in a sea of books, especially fairy tales.
It’s all fine and good, I suppose, until one day when Isabel hears a buzz coming from the floor of her school. She gets sent to the principal’s office (because hearing a buzz isn’t exactly normal school behavior), and on the way there she gets sidetracked and falls into a closet in the nurse’s office.
Into where, you may ask?
Well, into another world. One which is a bit old-fashioned, with log cabins and no cars and herb-based medicine, and which is most definitely fairy-tale-ish. With a magic, of sorts, and a witch that’s terrorizing the county of five villages. Sure, Isabel has to help defeat the witch so there can be a happily-ever-after, but the book is not really about that. It’s about making friends, and learning to be a friend. Simple, yet elegant.
It’s a good story, but one that I think worked better as an audio — there are lots of interruptions by the narrator, and ways to include the reader in the telling of the story — making the book more of a story to be heard rather than read. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much as I did had I read it. That’s not to say it’s not worth reading: it is, immensely. Dowell has a way with language and storytelling that makes even the simplest story magic.