My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson. Aladdin, 2015. 432 pages.
12-year-old Gracie is narrating this intriguing story in the diary her mother has just given her for her recent birthday. Aspiring to give us the setting of her “story,” she begins by describing her town: She lives in Cliffden, Maine; Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s are all there on Rt. 1. Everything sounds like our world until:
It’s not exactly safe to be out: The dragons are on their way south again, from the northern reaches of Wales and Scotland and Ireland, to hibernate in South America.
Dragons? Yes! And Sasquatches, witches, ghosts from the underworld, and a genie. Anderson builds a marvelous alternate world that seems both ahead of, and behind, our own in terms of its history.
Gracie sees several “death omens” right at the start, setting up the central conflict of the story: her family’s desperate attempt to reach the Extraordinary World in order to escape the Cloud that has come to carry one of their own away. With help from Gracie’s grandmother (a witch), the family sets off across country in an old Winnebago with Gracie’s orphaned friend Oliver and one Sasquatch in tow.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, time and again, Gracie’s family perseveres in their journey. Will they find the Extraordinary World? Does it really exist? Will they outrun the Cloud who seems to keep pace with them?
This book packs an emotional punch, not least of which because the ending offers a big twist that younger readers may not see coming (this grown-up was fully prepared, but she reads a LOT of these kinds of books). I also found the ending simultaneous hopeful and hopeless.
In the end, the family does indeed find the Extraordinary World but they can’t get to it. In addition, a member of the family does die. It’s “okay” in the sense that they are resigned to it and have made peace with it. But I found this ultimately to be pretty hopeless–as if the meaning in life is just what we can make of it given the luck of the draw we end up with. Sure, family is hugely important in that scenario, and pulling together as a family unit in the face of diversity is a valuable theme. Learning to love and appreciate each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and keeping the family intact even at great cost are marvelous points to ponder. But to leave it at just that seems a bit depressing. Some may argue that the Extraordinary World is a false reality for Gracie’s family and that we shouldn’t be pinning our hopes on a fantasy when we could be putting our energy into strengthening our families. But since the Extraordinary World is NOT a fantasy, it really exists–the family sees it and it has been their hope all along, and it can do nothing to help them, well, that felt a bit hopeless.