Hall, Brian. The Saskiad.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

It’s the late 1980s and Saskia White is twelve years old, living on a small farm that used to be a commune near a small town near Ithaca, New York. The place belongs to her mother, the beautiful Lauren, but there are a couple of other people living on the property, too, plus a number of kids younger than Saskia. Her Danish father, Thomas, has been gone for eight years and they get only a postcard or two a year. She’s an exceedingly bright girl, very well read, but still struggling with her impending adolescence. What keeps her going, really, in lieu of friends, is her rich fantasy life, consisting of a close relationship with Odysseus, Marco Polo, and Capt. Hornblower (and, later, Tycho Brahe). And then Jane Singh moves to town, the lovely, willowy daughter of Pakistani parents. The newcomers live the sort of white-bread, electric-can-opener lives you would expect of unthinking middle America, while Saskia’s home is vegetarian, TV-less, and steeped in Indian mysticism. Jane is a wild child, having been expelled from a number of schools, experienced with pot and sex, and capable of driving off in her parents’ car in the middle of the night. And the theoretically fearless Saskia turns out, to her own dismay, to be more naïve and fearful than she thought — but only for awhile, as the girls become closer than close. That’s the first third of the book, told in a deeply engaging manner that takes you into the lives and minds of the residents of White-on-the-Water.

Then Thomas comes back into his daughter’s life and nothing will ever be the same. A radical environmental activist, he’s on his way north from Copenhagen to try to save a river above the Arctic Circle from being dammed, which would damage the ecology of the area irremediably, and he wants Saskia and Lauren to come along. What he ends up with is Saskia and Jane, hiking for a month up through the coastal wilderness of Lapland, and discoveries are made and stories are told and relationships evolve (and not all for the best). And we learn where some of Saskia’s private vocabulary for other people comes from, as well as acquiring a far different picture of Thomas. That’s the second third.

The final third of the book, unfortunately, after the return of Saskia, Jane, and Thomas to the farm, is rather less convincing. It’s difficult to believe that Saskia’s personality could change so radically so abruptly, that her nervous lack of social graces could be so entirely replaced by a swaggering, pot-dealing hard case — even if that’s only on the surface. Nor do I quite buy her running off to the City and adapting to it so easily — not at thirteen. But Hall’s command of his characters and his story is excellent throughout the book. These are fascinating, fully realized people, all of them admirable in various ways, and all of them with problems. All of them are immature in certain ways, too, especially the adults. This is a book, and a story, I’ll be thinking about for some time.

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