Wild imagination and harsh reality collide in this childhood adventure story.
Shapero’s (Wild Animus, 2004) second novel describes the sort of childhood curiosity that leads to finding miracles everywhere. That primordial innocence rarely lasts, and even where it has space to flourish, the circumstances of life can conspire to end those moments early. Six-year-old Robbie and his best friend, Fristeen, navigate these difficulties as they explore the Alaskan countryside near their families’ homes. As often as they can, they travel past the hill, past the old tree named He Knows and through the crooked limbs of the Bendies to Too Far, their wonderland. It’s there that they can escape their declining family lives: Robbie’s parents find their love dissipating, while Fristeen’s mother, Grace, regularly neglects her in favor of pills or her destructive boyfriend. Shapero paints nuanced parental figures, providing small details that suggest deep emotion and genuine relationships. This is not a young person’s novel despite the age of its protagonists; it’s not always clear whom Shapero intends for his audience, which may create some unhappy readers who end up above or below its age range. Adult matters, including drugs and sexual innuendos, play a strong but subtle role. Many of these details emerge in Robbie and Fristeen’s play as the duo enacts their parents’ behavior, or in dreams, where Robbie encounters the sublime Dream Man and Fristeen, the resplendent Dawn. As the children struggle to cope and their parents no longer seem as powerful as they once were, Dream Man and Dawn fulfill a psychological need. Shapero displays an impressive command of the unconscious, but not at the cost of dramatic scenes. In the disintegration of Robbie’s parents’ relationship, plates fly and screams bellow; and the Alaskan wilderness hosts its own threats. It’s a world with great potential, but one that’s slipping away as these dangers creep in.
An engaging, reality-bending tale with plenty of solid ground beneath it.