drizzle, by Kathleen Van Cleve is one of those books that I kept passing on the shelf at work and gazing at fondly for a whole year. Sometimes I would pick it up and read the flap, sometimes I would just drink in the cover. I wanted to start reading it, but I was always reminded of the ever-growing stack of books at home that I also wanted to read and review. Finally, when I picked it up for the twentieth time and noted that the cover art is by a favorite of mine, Kazu Kibuishi, author and illustrator of the graphic novel series Amulet (book 4 comes out September 1, 2011!!) and the stand-alone, Copper, I knew I had to get reading since judging a book by its cover (in a literal sense, only) usually works for me. Over the course of many fifteen and thirty minute breaks I became so immersed in the book that I bought it and promptly finished it that night.
A unique fantasy novel, drizzle reminds me a bit of Ingrid Law's marvelous Newbery Honor winner, Savvy. Although there are magical elements, contemporary, real life is the setting for both of these books. Eleven-year-old Polly Peabody, who narrates the story, lives on Rupert's Rhubarb Farm. A mixture of the magical and the mundane, the farm is a bit like an agrarian Disneyland. Amidst fields of rhubarb, including chocolate rhubarb that allows kids to eat their veggies and candy at the same time, there is a laboratory where Polly's father, George, a scientist, does research on the medicinal properties of the plant. George's mother, Flannery, a bit of a botanist herself, cultivated a giant rhubarb plant when she learned that the oxalic acid in the leaves of the plant could aid in the mending the hole in the ozone layer. There is actually quite a bit of science in this book, most of it coming from Mr Dail, Polly's science teacher. On the fantastical side of the farm there is a "truly weeping cherry blossom tree" that really does cry, an enchanted lake in which nothing can die, an always flowering magnolia tree and ruby flowers that produce actual gems. There are also exotic and oversized bugs that find ways to communicate only with Polly. Theme park aspects include an umbrella ride, which resembles a giant stalk of rhubarb and allows riders to spin around on swings while enjoying the rain showers that occur every (and only) Monday at one pm and have done so for eighty-six years. There is also a replica of the White House (Flannery was very patriotic) which houses a rhubarb restaurant and cafe and an archive of the history of the farm, a hedge-maze that spells the word PEACE and a replica of an ancient Italian castle which is Polly's home.
The fact that it rains every Monday at one pm is seen as a scientifically explained phenomenon that has not yet been explained. The adults on the farm seems to have all sorts of scientific theories to explain the lake, the ruby flowers and the fact that, when Grandma Flannery died four years ago between the P and the E in the PEACE maze, tiny glittering diamonds popped out of the ground outlining her body and it looked as though all the plants "flapped their leaves good-bye," but Polly doesn't believe them. Polly believes that the farm is magic and that makes her love it all the more. drizzle begins in a moment of crisis with things spiraling increasingly out of control until almost the last page of the book. As with Savvy, there is not an actual bad guy or evil force to be fought as with most fantasy novels. Instead, the crisis comes from a bad thing that happens. For Polly, the bad thing is the inexplicable ceasing of the one pm rain every Monday followed soon after by her brother's mysterious illness and her beloved Aunt Edith's decision to sell the farm. With Aunt Edith, Van Cleve has created a truly unique and remarkable character in children's literature. Aunt Edith has been a journalist, writing for the NewYork Times and "anyone on the globe who was going to do anything important - bad important or good important - called to get her opinion." Polly's father says that Edith is, "one of those people who needed to be alone to achieve their dreams. Grandmom used to say that Aunt Edith wanted to be successful more than anything else int he world, including being a wife and mother. Aunt Edith agrees with Grandmom. She says she's not ashamed of this, and that no one would tell a man to be ashamed if he wanted to be successful." Polly adores Edith, almost as much as her beloved Grandmom, and is grateful that Edith has taken her under her wing and is mentoring her, taking her on a special field trip every Friday. Edith gives Polly the key to the locked library in the castle and introduces her to Ralph Waldo Emmerson and his book, Self-Reliance, which (in yet ANOTHER unique turn) Polly quotes from often, ponders thoughtfully and tries to live by as she searches for clues that will help her to save the farm and keep it from being sold.
While the plot and the fantasy elements, as well as Polly's growth from a person who sees herself as a cowardly oddball lacking self-confidence to a brave, smart, likable girl who is comfortable with who she is, are wonderful, as an adult and a woman I was especially drawn to the character of Aunt Edith and the role she plays in the story, the true importance of which may be lost on most eleven year old girls.
SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU PLAN TO READ THIS BOOK AND DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE SECRET OF THE FARM, STOP HERE!!!
Towards the end of the book it is revealed that the women in Polly's family, those born with a crooked finger, are rainmakers. It is this gift that keeps the farm running, but it is also a gift that keeps the women bound to the farm. For Flannery, this wasn't a problem. She loved the farm and saw no need for anything beyond it, ever. If she wanted to travel or have a diversion, Flannery went to the library and read a book. The same was not true for Edith and her mother could never recognize that. When, as a child, Edith saves her money to buy Flannery a gold necklace for Christmas, Flannery tells Edith that she "would have been better off saving her money for a rainy day and learning more about the farm." Edith took the necklace back and bought herself a fancy pen and that was the start of her writing and her ticket off the farm, so to speak. When Edith is forced to return after her mother's death so that the rain can continue and the crops will live, she works hard to improve conditions all over the farm as best she can but also introduce Polly to the world around her so that she doesn't feel bound to the land. After four years Edith knows that she can no longer put her life on hold for the farm, but she can't wait the six years it will take before Polly's full rainmaking abilities kick in at age eighteen, something she doesn't want for Polly anyway. She finds a buyer for the farm who will make them all extremely wealthy but will also plow under the parts of the farm that Polly loves most, freeing her from her legacy. Ultimately, Polly realizes that, while she can't make it rain yet, she can make it drizzle and that is exactly what she does. Maybe Van Cleve is working on another book about Polly that will present her at the edge of another crisis, like going to college!
Sequel or not, drizzle was an out of the ordinary and enjoyable read and I have no doubt girls are snapping it up left and right, especially now that it is in paperback! And, as a supercool side note, Kathleen Van Cleeve drew the map of Rupert's Rhubarb Farm herself!