Childhood's End

A Coming-Of-Age Story That Is Both Enchanting And Amusing.
By Christine Wald-Hopkins 

The Saskiad, by Brian Hall (Houghton Mifflin). Hardcover, $22.95.

YOU MIGHT CALL this new novel by Brian Hall Portrait of the Artist's Wife as a Young Half-Phaiakian. Hall admits he raided his own wife's preteen diary to help develop his central character, and the title The Saskiad is pretty Homer-heavy for this sprightly coming-of-age book.

From some half-remembered, half-inspired linguistic source, his young protagonist controls her own life by naming it.

The short version of the narrative is this: Saskia is the child of a New York granola girl and Scandinavian eco-activist who came together for an enlightened moment on a communal farm near Ithaca, New York, back in the '70s. The guru was carted away, the commune collapsed, Saskia experienced a dysfunctional idyllic childhood, and it's coming to a close. Though Saskia musters all her forces to stave off adolescence, hormones are against her. She makes friends with the exotic new girl in school, gets a surprise invite from dad (eight years out of the picture) to hike Norway, takes her friend on the trek, causes some complications, brings dad home, can't undo the complications, joins forces with the hormones, runs away to the city, and learns some things about her background and herself.

The long version takes us to sea with Horatio Hornblower, washes us up on shore with Ulysses, invites us fustian- and silk-shopping with Marco Polo, and pushes us close enough to the mirror in the "opium den" (Saskia's appellation) of Tyler Junior High to slather on face lard. We also get splashes of Ahab, Penelope and Ulysses and young Huck.

Hall's organizational structure is simple. The story takes place the year Saskia turns 13. At 12, secure in home routine, she's a quirky, precocious outsider at school. When she finds a friend in worldly 13-year-old Jane Singh, home security begins to chafe. Jane joins Saskia at play in Saskia's fantasy world of romantic travelers, but they also venture into the darker, threatening adult world, speculating about sex ("a limitless frozen lake fanned by leathery wings"), physical change (breasts: Jane wants a pair; Saskia'd give hers up); and the predictably shriek-producing question of what to call a penis ("dink"? "Punctillius Phallus"? It looks like something grown in a basement!).

The appearance of Saskia's father, Thomas, on the scene lands the fantasy romantic on the frozen lake. And Saskia has to grow up.

Hall's narrative is enriched and layered by Saskia's imaginative and writing life. A voracious reader (what else do you do when you and your mom are penniless, living in the shell of a collective farm from which the painted vans have lumbered away, leaving only dusty books among the cobwebs?), Saskia has conjured up classic adventurers, and Hall weaves them into the story line. Saskia also draws from the classics for her language.

In her Phaiakian language (shared with godlike creatures in the Odyssey), her "Novamundian" world is populated by adult "folksens" with their offspring "barns." When she thinks "barnish," girls are pigs and boys are dregs. She saves her Homeric turns of phrase for idealized descriptions of her mother--"tall, capable Lauren," and her absent father "of the Wine-blue eyes."

Bookish, a 12-year-old with the strongest milking hands in the county, Saskia prepares eggplant casserole and camel's milk sandwiches, writes haiku and has launched her autobiography: "Like all real people, I go under several names. To the laconic Captain, I am simply 'Lieutenant' and proud to bear that humble title...Marco calls me Aiyaruk, which means 'Bright Moon' in the Tartar tongue. By Odysseus' side I am Saskian Monogenia. Lastly, the Novamundians, with their typical lack of imagination, call me Saskia White."

It's the outside world that poses problems for Saskia. Novamundians roil the waters of the passage she's got to traverse: the dregs in school who taunt her, the faculty and administration (Saskia refers variously to the Vice Principal as Vitally Polluted, Vitriolic Pusball, Virtually Pandemic); even her beautiful friend Jane. It goes without saying that parents bring their own storms to the kid's voyage. Chestnut-haired Lauren spends quite a lot of time waiting for her wanderer Thomas by entertaining the suitors--not to mention seeking the perfect zucchini through meditation; and Thomas of the sapphire eyes, well we don't know exactly where he's been.

In the editor's promo, poet-novelist Sherman Alexie, not that far beyond that passage himself, writes of The Saskiad that he wishes he'd read it at 12, and then "three or four times a year until I was 99." Out of respect for The Concerned Parent Coalition who already have my number, this teacher-reviewer can't directly recommend the novel to 12-year-olds. (It dabbles in varied manifestations of sexual fumbling, a little marijuana, a little adolescent rebellion.)

However, it's an intelligent, lively, entertaining novel for anyone who has already come of age. And if parents forbade it, and then left it lying conspicuously out, their kids just might sneak off with it and enjoy it. They might learn a little something too...Say Kubla who? TW

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