Saturday, January 23, 2010

Conflict in 'Forests of the Heart' by Charles de Lint

We've all read "Grab the Reader by the Throat" and "Conflict on Every Page!" And we all bow to this bit of wisdom: you must force your reader to stay awake all night, even though they have to get up for work at 6 am the next morning. You must thrill them, author. You must take control of their minds and FORCE them to read on! Once they put the book down, they may not return!.

I just read a book that defies those maxims-- or does it?

Cool cover, isn't it?

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint starts out a bit slow. The opening scene is of a girl, Bettina, asking her grandmother why her mother and sister doesn't believe the old stories--stories of spiritwalking, coyotes giving dubious advice, and the place in between here and the spirit world. No one dies, and the Abuela and Bettina certainly understand each other. But it invites the reader to be part of a relationship where the old spirits are real and dangerous, not because they're bad, but because they are concerned with the land as much as about the people. That's intriguing to me.

De Lint takes a good hundred pages to warm us up, pages where we start to understand the rules of his magic, the myths that turn out to be real. To set the characters into place. And I liked it. I'm sure books like this supply the reservations with half of their tourists, hoping to see a great spirit-walker in the flesh, some ancient-eyed Indio who can turn into a hawk or a spider. It makes me wish that we had our myths back, that we could all believe in the old ways.

But, a thriller it was not. The major conflict is not revealed until the book is about 1/3 through. So it was a little bit of a stretch to trust the author that something will, in fact, happen.

The reader's attention is kept by the many small conflicts- Hunter's record store isn't doing well. He's going to have to let someone go, but who? Miki, the talented Celtic musician who's supporting her brother? And Miki and her brother, Donal, are fighting- he's drinking himself into the grave just like their father did, always angry about the wrongs society has done him and no girl will give him a decent chance. It's too bad he and Ellie, a talented sculptor broke up. And on and on.

Forests of the Heart sat on my kitchen table with three or four other books for about two weeks. I read a few pages at every meal. Some days I didn't get to it at all. But scene by scene I cared a little more and I finished it and loved it. So if you're trying to understand what agents mean about coflict on every page, I'd recommend this book. It's a great example of subtle conflict that works.

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