I read Breadcrumbs for three reasons: 1) A few months ago, I read The Real Boy and loved it. I was anxious to get my hands on more of Anne Ursu's writing. 2) One of my dearest friends (and also a bookworm) told me she bought Breadcrumbs and then disliked it so much, she wished she hadn't wasted her money. (Sometimes negative reviews intrigue me so much they actually make me more interested in reading the book.) 3) I wanted a snowy book for January, and this book had no shortage of cold and wintery things in it.
Hazel has always been lucky to have Jack as a best friend, but ever since her dad left, she has treasured his friendship even more (what other friend would be willing to give up his prized Joe Mauer baseball to help her feel better?). But Jack is facing some hard times of his own (his mother has become severely depressed), and one day, for some unexplained reason, Jack shuts out Hazel.
To lose one's best friend is devastating, and Hazel is determined to get Jack back, even if it means going into the wintery wilderness and facing unheard of dangers.
This story was far more allegorical and symbolic than I was expecting. The first half is locked firmly in the present. Then Jack gets a small piece of glass in his eye, and the line between fact and fantasy becomes blurred. The tiny glass shard is supposedly from a magic mirror, which freezes Jack's heart. He is carried off by the white witch, and Hazel is the only one brave enough to find him.
The apex of the story occurs when Hazel is deciding whether or not she should go after Jack or just accept the fact that friendships change and that she and Jack are just both growing up (and growing apart). I loved the following paragraph:
Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it because once you do, it's very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed. And then everything you knew before crossing the line is gone. But sometimes, you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead.The second half of the book takes place in a fantasy world of cold and snow and ice; a place where people have given up on their dreams; a place where sadness and misery reign. Hazel must fight through this, avoiding the temptation to give up herself, until she comes to the castle of the white witch.
. . . Except it is not entirely clear whether or not the second half is real or just a story created by Hazel to help her get through a hard time. The facts point to the latter: Hazel adores fairy tales; she has a history of daydreaming; she and Jack always loved going on "adventures" (when they were still friends). In many ways, it is easier for Hazel to think of confronting a magical foe than real hardship and betrayal.
The whole story has a deep, dark, menacing thread through it. It's never entirely clear what that thread is or what Hazel actually saves Jack from (depression? anger? suicide?). I don't think we're really supposed to know; that's why it's allegorical: we all have a little of Jack in us, as well as a little of Hazel. At times, we need to be saved; at other times, we need to do the saving. We all have periods of winter in our lives where it seems like we are so frozen we will never be able to feel anything again.
When Hazel confronts the white witch, this conversation takes place:
"If you wish to live your life out there," the witch continued, "that is your choice. But as for your friend, you do not know what's best. Look at him." She motioned out the window. "He wants for nothing. Would you really take that from him?"I thought this scene was very poignant and revealing. It's where Hazel realizes that even though she might never have her Jack back (the one who raced down snowy hills and hid out in an abandoned house and wiggled his eyebrows through the school window and gave her a Joe Mauer baseball), it doesn't matter. He is her friend. And even if he never returns that friendship again, she will still be as true a friend as she can to him.
" Yes," Hazel said.
"You know you'll never get him back," she said. "Not really. Even if you take him, it won't be the same."
Hazel looked at the ground. "It doesn't matter," she said in a whisper. That's not what this was about. Not anymore.
So I really did love the whole theme of friendship, and I thought it was executed in a very dramatic and memorable way. But there were also some things I didn't love.
First, in all honesty, it is a very slow book. There is a lot of repetition and not a lot of action. Even the witch doesn't prove to be a very frightening villain. (She is so convinced that Jack will not want to leave that she gives Hazel permission to try and persuade him.) It also felt slow for me because I wasn't sure what was real and not.
Second, the ending was vague and incomplete and not overly happy. There were many loose ends that never got tied up: Hazel's friendship with another girl, her desire to take dance lessons, her relationship with her dad, discovering more about her birthplace (she's adopted), and her struggles in school. Ultimately, I think this story really was about her friendship with Jack, but then it made some parts of the book seem pointless because they were just forgotten about in the end. Also, it leaves Jack and Hazel's friendship in a very vulnerable position, and it is unclear how things will end up between them.
Finally, I am so curious as to how this book has been received by 10-12 year-olds. I wonder if they're really able to grasp all of the underlying messages. And I wonder if the slow pace combined with the two very different settings makes it difficult for them to get into and continue reading.
In the end, I definitely did not despise this book like my friend did (is "despise" too strong of a word, Rachel?), but it won't be a book I readily recommend, nor one I will return to again and again.
But it was a great read for January.
And finally, unrelated to most of this review, but still one of my favorite parts of the book, this exchange between the white witch and Jack after she picks him up in her sleigh:
"Would you like some Turkish delight?" she asked.I loved this little nod toward Narnia.
"Just a little joke," she said. "Let's go."