Of all the large cities I've visited, north and south, east and west, the one I've enjoyed the most and returned to again and again is Chicago. The history, architecture, museums, theaters, restaurants, parks, libraries, big stores and small shops along the shore of Lake Michigan populated with people from all walks of life are interesting, entertaining and simply amazing. Considering I'm happiest hiking the hilly forests of northern Michigan without a soul in sight, that's saying quite a bit.
When an author chooses to place their book in a setting familiar to a reader, there's an immediate connection, a sense of coming home. In her first fiction book Blue Balliett selected her own community on the south side of Chicago, Hyde Park. This title, Chasing Vermeer, earned her numerous awards two of which are the Edgar Award and the Agatha Award.
The other two books in this trilogy, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game are either set in Chicago or begin there with her cast of familiar characters. A town in Michigan, Three Oaks, is the setting for her third book, The Danger Box (reviewed here). By now as a reader I have a vested interest in the books of Blue Balliett drawn to them first for the place in which the well-told stories unfold. I was thrilled to find the setting of her fifth book, Hold Fast (Scholastic), back in the city of Chicago.
It was the bitterest, meanest, darkest, coldest winter in anyone's memory, even in one of the forgotten neighborhoods of Chicago.
Light and warmth seem gone for good; mountains of gray
snow and sheets of ice destroyed the geometry of sidewalk and
On this day, in the heart of winter, a man disappears leaving behind his bicycle, groceries and a pocket notebook. The man is Dashel Pearl, husband of Summer and father to eleven-year-old daughter, Early and Jubilation, a younger son. He is a man who loves words and books, a page at the Harold Washington, the public library in downtown Chicago.
Dreams, a love of the writing of Langston Hughes, and hope are the glue binding this family together. When Dash begins cataloging books for an unknown buyer, the extra money is welcome. This money for Dash's college education will help them realize their desire to live in their own house. But now their small living quarters are no longer filled with laughter and plans for a brighter future. Despair descends as the police tell their tale and leave the three minus one.
Inquiries made of the wrong people lead to masked intruders stealing all they own, destroying their tiny one room apartment. Fearing for their lives, Sum, Early and Jubilation leave in the dead of night with nowhere to go but a shelter for the homeless. It seems the definition of bad has become much worse for the three Pearls.
To add insult to injury the police are trying to implicate Dash in a larger crime rather than simply being missing. An unsolved European diamond heist, smuggling and kidnapping swirl around the threesome as they attempt to adjust to their new circumstances. It is eleven-year-old Early, a thinker, a lover of words and riddles like her father, who knows it is up to her to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
Life at the shelter brings countless rules, crowded conditions, a new school for Early and an air of hopelessness into their world. With grit and determination Early begins to gather available resources disregarding the taunts of classmates and the lack of support from the police using the assistance of her father's old high school teacher and a tutor at the shelter. The hardest thing has become knowing who to trust.
Crooks and cons are lurking and listening. Death is waiting in the wings. More money than the Pearls can imagine is at stake. And how does The First Book of Rhythms by Langston Hughes tie this all together?
The language used in telling this tale of the plight of the homeless, the plight of the Pearls and the peril facing them at the hands of a ring of criminals is brimming with realism. Every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter is strung together artfully and with purpose. Chapter headings are single words; ice, click, crash, cling, clutch, circle, crimp, crack, chase, catch, cover, cast, click and ice. Each is defined as a noun and a verb, at times with completely different meanings depending on the culture in which they are used, on the first page of the chapter. For careful readers these words become clues.
Beautiful descriptions of place, characters' personalities and thoughts fill the pages of this story. For this reason readers are immersed in the emotions, the tension, caused by each event as the action escalates. Almost without being aware we watch, we listen, we dream, we think, we write and we plan with Early. Here are a couple of many passages I highlighted with my ever-present sticky notes.
"What's a printing?" Early had asked. She loved the way her father shared information; his tone always made a plain old fact feel like something special.
It was odd how quickly each Pearl learned that wishing aloud made everything worse. Survival was a matter of adapting, of learning how to hide in plain sight.
Understanding what she meant, Sum sighed. "I guess I am. Reading is a tool no one can take away. A million bad things may happen in life and it'll still be with you, like a flashlight that never needs a battery. Reading can offer a crack of light on the blackest of nights.
After you've read the final page, the note and acknowledgements you will quickly hold this book and, with a speed which can only be noted as fast, begin to think of all the people who you believe will want to read this book. The number will be considerable. Hold Fast written by Blue Balliett is a timely volume speaking to readers on more than one level; a story of family, homelessness, mystery and the power of the human mind and spirit.
Be sure to visit Blue Balliett's website linked to her name above. It's one of the better sites filled with information about all of her books with a special section for educators. This is a link to the Scholastic website for Blue Balliett. Here is a link to a recent interview in TimeOutChicagoKids about this title.
Enjoy this interview where Balliett speaks about why and how she writes.