Wednesday, November 2, 2016

November Book Review Club: THE DREAMHUNTER DUET

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@Barrie Summy

If ever we needed to escape into a good book, now's the time. I'm seriously considering spending the next week under the covers with a flashlight. Hey, it worked when I was ten, why not now?

Anyway, here's a possibility. Don't forget to click the link above for more reviews!

The Dreamhunter Duet
By Elizabeth Knox
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006 & 2007

When you’re head-over-heels in love, you overlook a person’s flaws. In time, they either become endearing or you pack up and leave, snarling about toilet seats left up or the way he chews a cheeseburger.

That’s how I feel about Elizabeth Knox’s DREAMHUNTER books. The premise, characters, and world-building are marvelous, breath-taking, the writing evocative yet urgent. I couldn’t stop reading.
I also couldn’t stop griping, especially at the end of the second book.

This is a young-adult alternate history set in Southland (Knox’s native New Zealand) c. 1905. Our teen protagonists are Laura Hame and her cousin, Rose Tiebold, children of the rich and famous. Laura’s father, Tziga, stumbled as a young man into the Place, a separate dimension tied to the “real” world at various geographical points. He returned having “caught” a dream that he shared with others during sleep—this proved  to be a source of solace and therapy, especially in hospitals, but also entertainment. Before long, others learned to enter the Place to catch dreams, and an industry grew up, with dreamhunters selling their dreams to those who needed them for therapy or just wanted the entertainment.

Not everyone can enter the Place, and not everyone who gets in can catch a dream. Tziga’s exceptional talent has made him rich. Ditto Grace Tiebold, Rose’s mother and the wife of Tziga’s brother-in-law and best friend: She is the darling of the Dream Palace, where customers in ornate sleepwear occupy sumptuous bedrooms to share a sleeping hunter’s dream.

Tziga and Grace have constructed a unique family unit. His wife, Laura’s mother, died of cancer, so the families joined households. The two dreamhunters are the breadwinners, but have to spend so much time in the Place that they are hardly ever around to parent and run a household. Those responsibilities are lovingly discharged by Grace’s husband, Chorley, a house-husband who makes films on the side. Laura and Rose are more sisters than cousins, inseparably bonded.

Everybody wants to grow up to be a dreamhunter. When the time comes for Laura and Rose to try, Laura enters the Place but Rose cannot. If you’ve read any YA at all, you see this coming a mile off, simply because Rose wants it so much and Laura doesn’t care. And of course Laura ends up with exceptional dreamhunting talent, inherited mystical abilities, and a hopeless, possibly illegal quest that will uncover hidden evil and throw her and her family into the teeth of danger. Familiar tropes, yes, but so winningly carried out that you’re too breathless to care.

Far less familiar to the YA reader is an omniscient point of view that puts us in the heads of adults, not teens, about 60 percent of the time. This is very, very odd for YA, but I was never in any doubt that the Laura and Rose were the story’s focus. Getting to know the adults so well only added to the richness of the story. My only trouble with the characterization was the way these two feisty, capable girls ended up wimping out at the end—no amount of self-analysis will tell me whether that’s legitimate literary criticism or just me wanting a happy ending. Probably the latter, so take it with a grain of salt.

As you read, your brain will keep prodding you for metaphysical logic. You have to ignore your brain because there ain’t none, especially when All Is Revealed at the end of the second book. The time paradoxes alone could kill you. Up to you whether that’s a problem.  

A far more serious breach, in my view, is the fact that the Hames and the Tiebolds and the other original European settlers apparently happened upon a completely empty variant of New Zealand: No Maori or other indigenous people.  I’m surprised there wasn’t an outcry about this, as there certainly was when an American YA author did much the same thing right around the time these books came out. Political correctness aside, it seems to me that the presence of indigenous people would have enriched the book.

I’m ashamed to say that this didn’t occur to me until about halfway through, but now it’s making me sad. I wish a book with so many wonders in it could have done better.

(Dear FCC: These books were on the reading list for next week’s Children’s Literature New England symposium on Passages of Hope, intended to examine whether it’s possible in this day and age to write authentic stories that also offer hope. This’ll be an interesting discussion, FCC. Drop by if you have minute.)