Two sisters who use stories and spells to cope with family dysfunction discover a river-dominated dream world.
Twelve-year-old narrator Eleanor reveals that Poppa is a batterer. Momma, his enabler and most frequent victim, replaces what Poppa breaks and rigidly disciplines the girls. Wilde perceptively etches Eleanor’s attempts to insulate Mike, 7, within their violent, secretive home, where “house magic” prevails if the girls obey the rules. When a mysterious river infiltrates their under-the-bed hideout, the girls enter a world with a caretaker Heron, nightmare horses, leak-patching crabs, and more. Anassa, a snake-headed monster working to breach the boundary between worlds with the ‘mares, exploits Eleanor’s anxieties. Leaks appear in the sisters’ and neighbors’ homes, mirroring Anassa’s fractious progress. The sisters’ back-and-forth questing to reconcile both worlds by replacing Momma’s old glass fishing float—a “witch ball” broken by Poppa—vividly culminates during a storm, in which netherworld birds help the girls fight back invading Anassa. The real-world plotting—including a tentative new relationship with their mother’s mother and Eleanor’s growing friendship with neighbor Pendra—is finely wrought. The allegorical fantasy elements, while propulsive, lack a strong controlling logic and require considerable credulity from readers, as Eleanor uncannily navigates the river world’s inchoate dangers. The sisters are assumed white, while Pendra is described as brown and is probably of South Asian descent.
The important topic of physical and emotional abuse in families is sensitively portrayed; the intertwined fantasy is at times a distraction. (Fantasy. 10-14)