3 out of 4 stars
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Strong Heart is a multi-genre journey through wildernesses and magical worlds with strong themes from start to finish.
Author Charlie Sheldon successfully ties together a present-day family’s troubles, environmental issues and ancient legends against the backdrop of the North Pacific Coast of the United States.
The book’s starting point is a hiking trip for Tom Olsen and his Native American friends into Washington State's Olympic Peninsula wilderness. Things move quickly as 13-year-old Sarah – the granddaughter Tom never knew he had – suddenly appears on his doorstep.
The plot opening asks the reader to make a couple of leaps of trust for it all to work, and it’s worth the jump.
Sarah soon becomes the main character and hers is a wonderful coming-of-age storyline. Some of her dialogue is not very apt for her age but her actions are. Both she and an ancient artefact are central to the multitude of themes Sheldon explores: Mother Nature, survival, history and family.
Sheldon’s plot direction may seem obvious at the start yet just as it may seem to be dawdling, there is a twist, and a parallel world is unveiled. Here the language changes subtly; sentences and descriptions become much more clipped and functional, much the way William Golding uses vocabulary to shape landscapes in The Inheritors. I liked this sentence structure. For me, it displayed the author’s intense love of the area and reminded me of how language can become very stripped back when describing immense, wild areas. With a few words, Sheldon conjures up the feeling of being a human among vast lands and seas.
While we follow Sarah into a magical world, those left in the ‘real’ world become further embroiled in issues and intrigue. The characters change and grow as they build towards a second – and vital - camping trip.
What I liked most about the book was a battle of wills between Sergei, a scientist who identifies as tribal and Russian, and the father and daughter pair of William and Myra, both Native Americans. There are some clever interactions and views expressed about science, myths and the history of humankind, all in accessible language. The voice of the author is strong in these parts, notably from Sergei, for example:
“Many people now do confuse belief with fact. They feel something is true only if they strongly believe it so as if utter faith equals truth. Such attitudes lead to zealotry, whether religious or scientific.”
Sheldon shows real skill in tying together the story threads from the real and imaginary world. There are brief appearances by wild animals that also enrich the narrative. The short chapters and clipped writing style gives the book a great, skip-along pace. Sheldon often shows us his themes perfectly, through dialogue and character action. On occasion, he lets the book down by then recapping and telling us what we have already seen play out. He should trust us with his story, as we have to trust him as the storyteller.
What I disliked most was the occasional repetition of steps during journeys. There are several points where nothing happens but we get full descriptions of boats landing, camps being set up, and then leaving camp only to do the same thing in a page or two with no real story or character development.
The author does occasionally get lost in the details of walks as if he were writing a guidebook. At one point, several characters have to tackle a treacherous walk that might finish some of them off. Obstacles on the route – forest fires, steep scree - are easily passed or get no second mention. Yet we receive precise navigational commentary about the last, risk-free 400m; walk to a gully, ascend 50m to the east, then a bit north and so on, making the scene feel a little flat.
There are a few other hiccoughs in the writing. For example, Sarah goes missing in the wilds and the authorities launch a helicopter search. As soon as it starts, the rangers just stop looking for her.
Also, some of the names Sarah gives to a group of people she encounters are confusing. At first, they are endearing, but when there is action, it’s confusing on the eye to differentiate between Weeps A Lot and Weeps A Lot More.
I would rate this book 3 out of 4 stars because it’s an entertaining read with appealing themes and multiple characters on diverging journeys. When I finished the book, I wanted to read the next book. I’m engaged in the characters and their journey. I couldn't give it four stars because it's not in the league of some of the plot flaws and some of the language used was a little repetitive at certain points. It is nowhere near a to star book, either, because it contains a lot of interesting themes, good characters and an engaging plot.
I would recommend this book to many types of readers, young and old, especially those with an interest in ancient tales, magic realism and nature. It would appeal to younger readers, too. I wouldn’t recommend it to people looking for pure fantasy.
As a final note, there is no real eroticism in the book at all, but the author does use implied elements of sexual abuse, including child abuse, to justify the development of the plot.
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