The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a perfect example of why I adore the Maud Hart Lovelace awards. I always try to read all of the nominees before the school year starts so I can speak intelligently about them when students or parents ask me. I have discovered more than one gem among the nominees over the years that I would probably have never chosen from the shelves myself if they hadn’t been on the nominees list. The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse definitely falls into that category.
There are two main characters: Princess Jeniah and Aon. Both are 12-year-old girls who live in the monarchy of Emberfell. The kingdom is happy and prosperous–and has been so for 1000 years. The twist is that Emberfell is only happy–its inhabitants are always happy and do not experience any negative emotions. The only exception seems to be Princess Jeniah’s family and Aon, a commoner. Aon has always been able to feel sadness and was told by her mother to hide it and pretend to be happy in order to blend into the town and the people around her. There is a Carse (new word for me!–a marsh) in Emberfell that all are warned to stay away from. Aon finds herself curiously drawn to the Carse and often steals away to explore it in small doses. Princess Jeniah has received an even more specific warning:
If any monarch enters Dreadwillow Carse, then the Monarchy will fall.
At the beginning of the story the Queen has become ill and it is clear that she will not survive. Princess Jeniah must begin preparations to become the ruler of Emberfell. The warning about the Carse concerns her because no one seems to be able to tell her how the Monarchy is tied up with the Carse. In order to discover the mystery of the Carse and still obey the warning, Jeniah asks Aon to explore the Carse for her:
Before they parted ways, each swore to help the other.
And each told the other a lie.
When Aon does not return from the Carse, Jeniah must decide if she is willing to risk the Monarchy to help her friend.
The atmosphere of the Carse is magnificently foreboding. While reading, I felt right beside Aon in the unsettling, fraught-with-unknown-danger of the Carse. The setting is a character in itself and is integral to the growth of both Jeniah and Aon. The secondary characters of the Queen, the enigmatic tutor, Skonas, Aon’s father and her adopted brother, Laius, are also extraordinarily well-developed. They are not simply background for Jeniah and Aon; they serve to complement and complete their stories by emphasizing focal points in the girls’ character development.
Both lead characters are incredibly three-dimensional. ( I am often leery of ‘princess’ characters, as I usually find them banal at best and annoying at worst. Princess Jeniah is nowhere on that spectrum!) The development of the girls’ friendship, bonding over the fact they can share worries and sadness with each other because no one else has even a concept of those types of emotions, subtly becomes the basis upon which the story builds. The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse manages to be a lush and vibrant story with surprising depth. without externally manipulating either the characters or the plot.
In addition to the sheer enjoyment of the story all by itself, the book and its characters provide a wealth of springboards for discussions about friendship and the idea of ‘sacrificing a few for the good of the many.’ I was also thrilled to see that Brian Farrey is a local author here in the Twin Cities! I will definitely be looking into his backlist!The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a wonderful independent or read-aloud selection for middle grade readers!