I have to admit that when I picked up this book I paid more attention to the stickers for the Prinze Award and the National Book Finalist Award than to the blurb identifying it as magical realism. (It has won a number of other awards as well.) If I had seen that description, I might have passed over the book, so I’m glad I didn’t; this is a wonderful story.
There aren’t many characters. Finn O’Sullivan, 17, lives alone with his older brother Sean in Bone Gap, Illinois, a small rural town where everyone knows everyone else. It’s also “a magical place. . . the bones of the world were a little looser here, double-jointed, twisting back on themselves, leaving spaces one could slip into and hide. . . . Not gaps made of rocks or mountains. We have gaps in the world.”
One could also say that these “gaps” are just different ways of explaining reality.
A little less than a year before the story begins, the brothers find a beautiful Polish runaway in their barn named Roza. They offer her a room in the empty apartment adjoining their house, and Sean falls in love with Roza. But then Roza vanishes. Finn claims he saw a man take Roza away, but is unable to provide a description. No one believes Finn; they think he is just scatterbrained and made up the story.
Indeed, one common theme is the way in which presumptions and prejudices color people’s views so much, that they cannot see one another. We are apt to make quick judgments and assign labels that become hard to shake. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
“And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”
People in love also have different ways of seeing one another. At one point, Finn tells his girlfriend Petey he loves her:
“She shook her head. ‘You can see me, that’s all.’
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could?”
By implication, love means not only really seeing each other, but still choosing the other person “anyway,” and moreover, learning to cherish what we see.
This first love that Finn and Petey share is depicted in part through magical realism. One is reminded of the paintings in which Chagall shows how he feels through his art. In these famous paintings, he and his wife-to-be Bella are usually flying: swept off their feet and soaring above the earth, just as one does feel when one finally experiences the highs and happiness of passion.
Similarly, Roza’s abduction is depicted as what Hell might seem like – the world, now cruel, is turned upside down, and there is no escape.
A third way magical realism is employed is in the use of Bone Gap itself. This is an actual place, and included among the first settlers were the five Rude brothers. In this story, there are also five brothers with the surname of Rude. I believe this adds to the tone of the story as being both in time and out of time.
At bottom though, it is a coming of age story, and a riveting one. It is also, even more appealingly, a story of what it means to love someone. As Finn says to Petey in a poem (also referencing his cat which had gone missing):
“…you find a girl, you kiss
a girl, you find the cat,
that there is nothing left to lose, and
all there is, is there to find.”
Evaluation: The awards for this book are well-deserved. Once you accept the magical realism as a perceptual framework, much like the role of Death in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, you can adapt your expectations, and become a collaborator in deriving meaning from the story. Like poetry, the magical elements add an imagery to the words, generating meaning richer than could be imparted by ordinary prose.
Published by Baltzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015