Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, is a lovely yet sharply and at times painfully realistic coming-of-age tale, made all the more enjoyable for its many winks and nods to well-known works of children’s fantasy such as THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and most prevalently the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a fairy tale in the true old-fashioned sense rather than the more recent Disney versions — one full of wonder but also an equal amount, if not more, of danger and sorrow, and it ends not with “and they lived happily ever after” but “and they lived…”
Eleven-year-old Hazel is having a hard time adjusting to the recent changes in her life: her father left last year and is about to remarry and her new school is filled with kids who just don’t seem to get her. The sole point of solidity in her life is her best friend Jack, the two of them sharing a wildly fertile imagination as well as some parental issues (Jack’s mom suffers from depression). But even that is taken from her when Jack is corrupted by a shard of magic mirror glass and then stolen away by a magical Ice Queen. Hazel sets off to rescue him, heading into the magical woods thinking herself well-armed by all her fantasy reading. It turns out, however, that these fairy tale woods and this fairy tale quest is not at all like Narnia or Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And even those moments that do seem similar on the surface to all those children’s fantasies turn out to be much darker and murkier than the stories portrayed.
Ursu does a great job in conveying this in-between age, when one’s inner world starts to conflict with the outer world, when the actions of both peers and adults begin to impinge more directly and strongly upon one’s personal world, when part of you wants to so badly to hang on to the magic and mystery of childhood while another part is so terrified of being left behind and labeled a “baby,” and when childhood friendships that seemed like they’d last forever become sadly ephemeral. Sure, Jack seemingly changes overnight and no longer wants to be her friend because of that shard of magical mirror, but underlying that is the chilling sense that it might not “only” be that shard causing this. And when the book ends, Jack and Hazel are friends again, but there is no sense of surety there; one can easily see the two of them going their own ways. It’s a vivid and truthful portrayal of this time period and for the most part handled smoothly and subtly. The same goes for the introduction of the parental issues. Yes, we have divorce and the looming stepmother and depression, but while integral to the story, they serve mostly as background.
Ursu is just as deft when she and Hazel enter the world of magic and fairy, using a nice mix of pastiche and originality. The situations and characters Hazel meets are mostly familiar — a woodsman, an Ice Queen, a kindly old couple in a cottage, etc. — but never feel like simple imitation. And her entire experience in the woods is disturbing, slightly askew, never feeling quite right. The woods are not the magically wonderful worlds of Narnia or Middle-Earth; they are filled not only with simple danger (after all, so were Narnia, Wonderland, and all the others) but also with grief and sorrow and populated by the lost and wounded. It’s the world of Faerie rather than Fairy. It’s a world one survives rather than becoming a king or queen of. And so when Jack and Hazel exit, they are not unscathed by their experiences there, or by what drove them there in the first place.
Breadcrumbs is a book for young readers, and I think it will appeal to a broad range of that age group, from the younger set of 9 or 10 to the upper teens. But it will as well appeal to those who have never forgotten the highs and lows of that in-between age and those of us who grew up on those great works of children’s fantasy will find lots of places were we’ll nod and smile as if at an old friend caught in passing. Highly recommended.