Because I’m a sucker for a story with a close father/daughter relationship, I really enjoyed “The Story Web,” by Megan Frazer Blakemore. But it is not the only reason. I also love the small-town dynamics, the role ice hockey plays in the story, and the magical realism inherent in the very concept of a physical Story Web, which Alice first sees as a small child.
When “The Story Web” begins, Alice is struggling to cope with her father being away for a mysterious and vaguely shameful reason. It’s bad enough that he is gone, but Alice feels responsible for sending him away. It is also not clear when he’ll be able to come home. Blakemore does a great job hinting at the source for those feelings, revealing Alice’s thinking slowly through the book.
Although Alice’s father, Buzz Dingwell, is not physically present for most of the book, he is a big presence, not just in Alice’s heart and mind but in the hearts and minds of the entire Maine town. That’s in part because Buzz was a local hockey star in his youth. He played professionally for several years before retiring and returning home to coach hockey and otherwise give back to his town. Also, he’s a good team player; a mensch, some would call him.
Meanwhile, this town has been struggling ever since the mill closed down. Some townspeople want to attract a large chain store to town, though others do not, and that provides yet another point of conflict in the story.
The main thing the town has to focus on is its ice hockey program and so that is a central storyline in the novel. In addition to Buzz’s hockey prowess, Alice — at least before the story begins — was the best goalie in the town’s memory, and her best friend, Lewis, has dreams of being the next Buzz Dingwell. Plus Buzz’s brother (Alice’s uncle) Donny is now the hockey coach.
Although I am not a hockey fan in real life, I have enjoyed the adult books by Fredrik Backman (“Beartown” and “Us Against You”) set in small backwoods towns that live and breathe hockey. With its small-town dynamics, financial concerns and focus on hockey, “The Story Web” shares some elements with those Backman books.
As for the magical realism, when the reader sees forest animals gathering to determine who should go warn the humans about the deteriorating Story Web in their neighborhood, and then when animals show up in town; first a crow lands on the lunch table, then a baby bear waddles into town, a cedar waxwing and, finally, a moose, it feels very much like a story by Kathi Appelt or Katherine Applegate. So if you like either of those authors, I suggest you give “The Story Web” a try.
“The Story Web” seems to be a network of webs all around the world that are made up of stories. A healthy Story Web means a healthy world. When Alice finally figures out the problem, it’s up to her and her friends to figure out how to repair the web in their woods.
Repairing the web is easier said than done. And, while Alice’s father always counsels her to “Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Fierce,” Alice often feels the opposite. Blakewell does a good job acknowledging for the reader that it is not always easy to be bold, brave and fierce, even when you want to, and that it’s OK to be scared and unsure. That’s when it’s good to have friends you can count on.
The other thing I love about this book is how it addresses the sometimes-confusing line between honesty and truth in storytelling. In other words, sometimes a story, while not precisely factually true, gets to the honest heart of that story even while bending or otherwise reshaping facts. This is really, when I stop to think about it, the heart of fairy tales. To see Alice tell her own version of her fairy tale, her town’s fairy tale, toward the end of the story is marvelous.
This is a true middle-grade story; Alice and her friends are about 11 years old and their concerns seem to be right on target for that age. I am planning on reading other books by Blakemore because I really love her voice and I hope to find more characters as engaging as Alice and her friends.