When it comes to American authors, especially first-timers, I tend to hesitate just a bit before picking up the book. There is no particular reason. It may be because one grew up on a steady diet of British authors. Or that it was drilled into one’s head that “English” authors are best for children.
Kristin Kladstrup grew up in Iowa in the US. And she is a first-time author. Neither fact stems her mean storytelling streak. The Book of Story Beginnings is hypnotic. In fact, as fantasy novels go, this is right up there with the best, though the narrative tends to stretch in some places.
Lucy Martin’s great aunt, Lavonne, dies, leaving behind her house in Iowa to Lucy’s father, Shel. There is also a cryptic message for Lucy about the disappearance of Oscar, Lavonne’s brother, in June 1914, more than 80 years ago. According to Lavonne, Oscar had rowed out to sea and never came back. But what defies logic is the fact that there are no oceans in Iowa.
The Book of Story Beginnings: By Kristin Kladstrup; Walker, 360 pages, Rs270
The family decides to move there and Lucy falls in love with the centuries-old rambling farmhouse in the heart of the country and a farm cat, Walter, who is actually the boy Oscar. The adventures begin when Lucy, while exploring the farm and its outhouses, discovers Oscar’s diary and The Book of Story Beginnings. The book is magical and has a warning: “Beware you writers who write within. Be mindful of stories that you begin…Not all beginnings make good tales…Some succeed, while others fail.”
The warning is not without reason. If one starts writing a story in that book, it comes true. Oscar’s attempt to write a story about the sea that comes up to the garden had come true. Missing, he is presumed dead—till Lucy and family start living there. There are, at least, three stories in that book, along with Oscar’s. And each of them has come true.
One night, Lucy starts writing a story about her father becoming a magician and, to her horror, it comes true—Shel turns himself into a raven and disappears. At the same moment, her great uncle reappears—an Oscar who comes straight out of 1914.
Kladstrup then takes the reader on an exciting ride with Oscar and Lucy as they set out to rescue her father from the land of cats and birds. And it can be done only with some skilful plots written in The Book of Story Beginnings. Will they get to him in time or will he be devoured by a cat? Everything depends on the script—which sometimes writes itself—the duo can conjure. It is the magic that links three generations of Martins and that can bring them together again.
“I have always loved the big, brick house in Iowa where my mother grew up. From its windows, you can look out and see beautiful fields and pastures. But when I was young, I was always ignoring what was in front of me and wishing for something more exciting, and from those windows I could imagine the ocean stretching out to the Iowa horizon,” says Kladstrup in a footnote about the inspiration behind this impressive debut.
(The writer is the editor of Heek (e-heek.com), a children’s magazine. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org)