I’ve found a book for those of you who were traumatized in youth by Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and other hopeless dog tales. As a lifetime dog owner and lover, dog books have become my personal cancer books. I just can’t read them without having the heart ripped out of my chest.
When in graduate school my Resources in Children’s Literature prof assigned us Because of Winn-Dixie, we took it with a measure of trepidation and asked her tremulously before we’d begin, “Does anything bad happen to the dog?” Turns out, no, it doesn’t. (Yay!) And turns out, when they tout Spirit’s Key as being Savvy meets Winn-Dixie, they’re not far off. Spirit’s Key is the poignant tale of both a girl coming into her family power and her relationship with a much beloved dog. Edith Cohn’s solution to the much feared dying dog issue? Bump him off before the book even begins—genius!
“You know what legends are?”
“Stories that aren’t real?” I guess.
“Legends are the realest kind of stories, told over and over by people for generations.”
Spirit Holden and her father came to Bald Island six years ago after being driven off the mainland by dissatisfied customers. They chose it because on Bald Island, people believe. The folks of the island have been unmoved for generations, full of superstition and odd beliefs, willing to put stock in her father’s predictions. The Holden family has survived for generations on their ability to see the future, an ability that Spirit should have inherited by now, but is still outside her grasp. Stamped a “dingbatter” (outsider) by her immigrant status and friendship with one of the island’s “devil spirits,” an adopted baldie, Sky, Spirit relies only on her father for company. When the island’s wild dogs begin turning up dead they bring with them a fear of sickness and devil spirits that only Spirit’s unprejudiced belief may overcome.
Spirit’s Key is a lovely work, tying together coming of age, heartache, hope, friendship and loss with just a touch of White Fang and magic. Spirit and her father need a community willing to believe in the supernatural to sustain themselves, and yet it is these community beliefs and legends that cause the bulk of the conflict in the story. Throughout the book it seems Spirit is squinting hard at the blurred lines of what is ridiculous to believe and what is real. After all, with a family that sees the future is it such a stretch to think that all living things might have a spirit? Perhaps not for a dog, perhaps so for a banana. Spirit is a girl who believes in dreams if not miracles, a girl for whom all animals are sacred, and a girl with a seething anger she is unable to see until it begins to ebb.
Edith Cohn draws Bald Island beautifully through her words, and Eliza Wheeler does so literally with her stunning map and illustrations, bringing it to life and making it a character in its own right. I’ve said so before, but I can’t help but repeat my love of island settings in books. Perhaps it dates back to a little girl and Avonlea, but it also arises from the fact that islands act their parts in stories as few other settings are able. Bald Island is touched with the calming spirit of yaupon tea, the wild fear of baldies and hurricanes, and the remnants of an abandoned way of life.
Like any great Middle Grade novel with a twelve-year-old lead, Spirit’s Key is a coming of age story. Spirit is caught between a world that is close and safe and one that is far more frightening but potentially rewarding. She struggles with the notion of coming into her own gift and the realization that it could be something completely different than anything the Holden family has ever known before. Spirit struggles with giving up her past so that she might face her present and be prepared for the future. Edith Cohn strikes a marvelous balance here between internal and external struggles as Spirit forms new bonds and must uncover the truth of the mysterious illness that is wracking Bald Island in order to save its people and its dogs.
Spirit’s Key is formed by the notion that people fear things that they don’t understand, but that children can see past these fears—there is such a multitude of things they do not yet understand that they must learn to face them bravely or become mice. Even with the power to see the future, the Holden family has learned that things can be changed if one is prepared. Spirit is, perhaps wisely, afraid of the messenger status that will come with her gift and unwilling to let go of Sky, the only and best friend she has ever had. She finds strength in her loss and fear, and learns what can be gained by pushing beyond.
While Spirit’s Key is a beautiful and touching tale of friendship, family, and the relationship one can have with a beloved pet, it did fall short in its ending. Spirit, and indeed all of the inhabitants of Bald Island, were too understanding of one another’s motives, and the end was simply too chummy to be believed. I found it hard to swallow that people who believed so ardently in certain superstitions that they let them run their lives were so easily changed. Indeed, the unmasked villain of our piece comes off somewhat Scooby Doo-ish only barely missing the lines “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you kids and that confounded ghost dog.” Perhaps I am an aging cynic, but even as the end result seemed fitting it also seemed too easy.
Still, Spirit’s Key remains on my shortlist for best new Middle Grade titles of the year. It is lovingly thought out and detailed, right down to using a very Great rope as the page breaks. Spirit is smart, insightful, and though perhaps too understanding is not without a bite of temper and obstinence to make her real. I’ll even admit to a twinge of dog-induced emotion with Sky, even though I thought myself safe. As Spirit discovers of Sky’s grave, this book acts as a trap door connecting our world and theirs, and I highly recommend it to every young and spirited dog lover.