Reeling from their widowed father’s sudden death, Tess and Axel are whisked from rural Baldwin, New York, to Helsinki by Jaana, the stern Finnish grandmother they’ve just met, to live in their grandparents’ tiny condo—a prospect dismaying to all, including the children’s long-dead mother, who has her own agenda.
While young teen Tess and Jaana engage in a battle of strong wills, Axel, 10, has other worries. Like his grandfather Otso, an otherwise healthy wheelchair user, and his mother, Alex has a rare form of muscular dystrophy with an uncertain prognosis. Saara died giving birth to him, and Axel himself is in fragile health. Lately, he’s been haunted by a wheelchair only he can see and that follows him everywhere. That’s not all. Tess also saw the bear and the Keeper back in New York, but Axel doesn’t know how to convince her the bear is their mother, who’s set them a difficult task. Style and characterization are strengths, along with diverse, evocative settings, including Baldwin, a seedy trailer in Florida, Finnish cottage country, and the magical path connecting them. The plot becomes confusing when realistic elements increasingly clash with Kalevala-infused fantasy. While the point of view alternates between both kids, Axel is the center of gravity; his choices increasingly drive the action until the startlingly abrupt ending.
A thoroughly original tale with plenty of appeal for older middle-graders through teens. (Fantasy. 11-16)