It’s understandable that so many have soured on adult fiction and are finding greater rewards in Young Adult novels. It seems that contemporary adult novelists devote themselves to a minimalist approach, stripping life of its mystery, its romance and its quality of transcendence. This reductive quality in contemporary fiction – shorn of story, shorn of suspense, shorn of purpose – is perhaps the greatest threat to contemporary engagement with reading.
Many novels targeted towards Young Adults, however, have evaded this post modern rot. This is largely because the fodder of so much bad contemporary fiction – failed relationships, unsatisfying sex, career depression – still lie ahead for many young adult readers. Also, Young Adult novels drive in an engine powered by plot; and plot is something much contemporary fiction ignores.
There is also a quality of fearlessness in Young Adult fiction that contemporary adult fiction lacks. It can take risks, go for the big effect, approach realms of magical realism. And certainly few new Young Adult novels go for the big effect more ambitiously than Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.
Maybe a Fox is about two sisters, Sylvie and Jules. Both girls live with their widowed father in rural Vermont. When Sylvie, a runner, disappears and is presumed dead, Jules must cope with her feelings of loss and guilt. She must also try to find a greater, more deep understanding of her sister, their relationship, and reconcile them to memories of their late mother.
Also going on, her friend Sam is dealing with the return of his brother, Elk, who is back from active service in Afghanistan and dealing with the loss of his own dear friend, Zeke.
The novel shifts from its realist roots with sequences involving Senna, a new-born fox who feels a strange affinity for Jules. Is this, in some way, the returning spirit of Sylvie, or something more mundane?
Appelt and McGhee are to be given kudos for their remarkable evocation of grief. For readers (young or old) who have had to deal with loss and its resultant pain, the taste of this peculiar agony is palpable on the page. Here is a good sample, where Jules realizes that her life can be divided into her earlier life, and “after Sylvie:”
After Sylvie, Dad laced and then untied, then relaced his boots, and then sat there staring at them as if he didn’t know whether to relace them once more.
After Sylvie, Jules caught Dad more than once pouring two glasses of milk, then pouring the second one back in the carton. Her dad didn’t drink milk.
After Sylvie, Jules poured the rest of Sylvie’s coconut shampoo down the drain of the shower. Even though there was no trace of the shampoo, Sylvie’s signature scent lingered in the bathroom, clung to the shower curtain, hung there in the steamy air. Jules used her dad’s Old Spice shampoo when she took a shower. It didn’t smell like coconut.
After Sylvie, Jules stood in the kitchen and watched Dad stir a pot of spaghetti sauce. It was the first time since … It was the first time they were eating something besides Mrs. Harless’s soups. She was sick of Mrs. Harless’s soup, even though she knew that Mrs. Harless was just trying to be nice to them.
The sauce bubbled, thick and spicy. Jules made a salad and her dad dished up the spaghetti and they sat down and ate it at the table where Jules had set down three plates before she remembered.
Every day she forgot and then every day she remembered.
And that’s how it was After Sylvie.
That plaintive style reminiscent of incantation is extremely powerful and the book has many strong passages like this. There are also several surprisingly clumsy passages, as if the co-writers were unsure of the dominant authorial voice. Because of this, Maybe a Fox gets off to a slow and unsure start; but readers are encouraged to stay with it for the greater rewards.
The supernatural or preternatural aspects of the book will move you or not, according to taste. It is a bold gambit on behalf of Appelt and McGhee because it mitigates, to some degree, the pain at the loss of Sylvie. The pain of the void is great material for a novelist; for novelists to fill that void is courageous, but not always successful. However, Appelt and McGhee do a wonderful job with their central story conceit, and it’s impossible to read Maybe a Fox and remain unmoved.
Maybe a Fox comes highly recommended to readers young and old alike. It is deeply affecting, emotionally demanding and eminently rewarding.