Falling in Love with Frances O’Roark Dowell

Isabelle Bean has great taste in boots

I have been meaning to read something by Frances O’Roark Dowell for some time now. She generally writes the kind of contemporary middle grade fiction I can’t seem to get enough of. Case in point: The Secret Language of Girls. That title alone is enough to make me rush out and pick up the book. So it’s odd that the first Dowell novel I read was her new fantasy Falling In, which was a great novel, but in no way what I had expected from this author.

Isabelle Bean is odd; she knows it, her classmates know it, even her mother calls her a strange child. Isabelle, a lover of folk and fairytales, has come to terms with her oddness, convinced that she is a changeling left by the fairies. So it’s not completley surprising to her, when one day, she opens a broom closet and falls into another world. This is no Wonderland- in fact, the world appears much like her own, except that the children are terrified of a witch. Isabelle meets Hen, a young girl intent on killing the witch with her own bare hands, and the two of them set off into a deep, dark wood in search of answers.

This was a quick read. The story was engaging and divided into short, manageable chapters. The narrator often digresses from the story to address the reader directly, or hint at what’s to come, or in some cases, to comment on the act of storytelling. Dowell is careful to keep this narrative meandering in check, however, and the overall affect is charming rather than distracting.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the book so thoroughly was the description  of the herb lore and nature-based healing practised by Hen and Grete, the old woman of the woods. Having read every single witch craft-pagan- earth magic book that existed when I was 12, I have developed a soft spot for teas and salves made of plants with names like Wolfsbane, Verbena and Lilywort. If I was a character in a fantasy novel, I would totally be the wild woman who lives in a thatched cottage and collects odd specimens from the woods to heal the narrow-minded townsfolk who will accuse me of being a witch at least three or four times in my lifetime. Basically, I’d be Juniper in Monica Furlong’s books Wise Child and Juniper. Oh Monica Furlong, Goddess of the witchy genre…but I digress.  

Despite a few darker Grim-like elements, (mean kids, a witch than hunts children, a mob of children who *may have* stoned a baby under the assumption that it was the devil), the book was fun and charming. I am often on the lookout for books that a strong 8 or 9 year old reader would enjoy without being age inappropriate. This is a perfect choice. Dowell is clearly a top-notch writer in command of her craft. I will definitely be seeking out her other titles. The Secret Language of Girls, here I come!

Falling In is available now from Atheneum.

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