A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrations by Yuko Shimizu, 368pp, RL 4

A Crack in the Sea is a stunning, unforgettable novel by H.M. Bouwman with superlative, generous illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. I delightedly read and listened (narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin) to this novel of which storytelling is a central theme in January, when the ALA Awards (Newbery, Caldecott, etc) are announced and it was hard not to imagine this book as a strong contender for the Newbery medal out of the gate.

At first, the world of A Crack in the Sea feels as huge as the ocean that it is set in. But Bouwman draws her story in quickly, shifting between sets of siblings living at various times and in various worlds. We first meet Kinchen, sister and protector of her brother Pip, who has face blindness - all faces are new to him and they all look the same, in their home, known as the second world, where no one goes intentionally. The people of the second world, the (mostly) lighter skinned inhabitants of the islands and the (mostly) darker skinned inhabitants of Raftworld, were all lost at sea in the first world (our world) and thrust through a secret portal, if not born in the second world. The Raft King has his own, secret reason for wanting to return to the first world, which is one of the marvelous Easter eggs scattered throughout A Crack in the Sea, and, in what is supposed to be part of an annual trade between islanders and Raftworlders, the Raft King instead kidnaps Pip, who can talk to the fish, and leaves a young, disobedient Raftworlder in his place. Together with Caesar, the boisterous, braided girl who is traded for Pip, Kinchen sets out, on the back of a Kraken, no less, to rescue her brother.

Part of Kinchen and Pip's story, part of the history of the second world, revolves around the story of Venus and Swimmer, twins who arrived there hundreds of years ago with their guardian, Uncle Caesar. Mysterious in both worlds, Uncle Caesar found the twins off the coast of Africa, walking out of the water at a young age. He named them Water-Drinker and Swimmer and, while he was able to teach them to speak his language and some English, he never taught them how to swim and they never spoke of the magic they possessed that led them to Caesar in the first place. Years later, the trio was kidnapped and enslaved, headed to Jamaica, a life of bondage and unspeakable cruelty already unfolding. With spare, fascinating magical abilities, the twins manage to save themselves and many other captives on board the Zong, passing through the portal into the second world. The third set of siblings, in a story that is as harrowing and heart stopping as that of the captive Africans aboard the Zong, Thahn and his older sister Sang, orphans just like Venus and Swimmer, Kinchen and Pip and young Ceasar, board a questionable vessel with their uncles, a strange boy with stranger powers and a baby to escape war-torn Vietnam in 1978.

To this already rich, layered, mix of echoing stories, Bouwman adds the theme of storytelling itself, the backbone of A Crack in the Sea. Ren, the pale skinned adoptive grandfather of Kinchen and Pip who seems impossibly old, tells stories of Venus and Swimmer. Jupiter, the storyteller of Raftworld (a position that Thahn, a storyteller himself, is amazed to learn is a profession) tells the children stories of the Raft King, named Putnam by his adoptive mother who left the second world amid a flock of birds when he was five years old, breaking his heart. Then there is Venus herself, resistant to storytelling and even memories of her past until she takes on the job of tending a very curious statue.

Bouwman has layered A Crack in the Sea with so many marvelous "a-ha" moments and unforgettable characters that, after finishing the story then reading all the backmatter, I started the book from the beginning again. And it was in the backmatter that I learned that the Zong was a real slave ship that inspired Bouwman's story. When the enslaved Africans became sick, the captain and crew decided to throw them overboard to their deaths in order to claim the insurance money. The insurance company refused to pay and the case went to court, gaining much notoriety and causing the people of Great Britain to consider the profound evils of slavery and fight against it. Of the agonizing stories of Venus and Swimmer on board a slave ship in 1781 and Thahn and Sang escaping Vietnam in 1978, Bouwman has beautiful words that remind me why we read and why some of us are called to write: 

In light of all this pain, what can a fantasy novel offer? It can ask us to consider alternative and possibilities. What if we lived in a world where people didn't die in chains, where people didn't drown trying to escape from war and persecution, where somehow love, like magical water, surrounded us whenever most needed and held us all up? What if we lived in a world where kraken weren't terrifying monsters - but simply people we do not yet know? A world where we could be bigger than we are, and where we could always offer a home to the stranger and the dispossessed? Where every new unrecognizable face could one day become the face of a friend?

The truth is, we do live in a world where these things are possible. We simple have to choose to make them happen. And sometimes, I think - I hope -a book can help us see that, and have courage, and take action.

Artwork by Yuko Shimizu, not part of A Crack in the Sea, but well suited to Bouwman's words:

Source: Review Copy

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