4 out of 4 stars
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Strong Heart by Charlie Sheldon is a charming magic realism story set in the Pacific Northwest and spanning millennia. It begins with an orphan thrust into a world she did not know and continues into the wilds of an ice age and beyond. It raises questions of scientific theory, biology, and possibility as well as the very real issue of technology and industry versus the preservation of our history. As I read, this story evoked the feelings of adventure and discovery I had in grade school when we learned about the ancient civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs. It is steeped in magic and history, making it an entertaining and engaging read I didn’t want to put down.
This book is about Sarah, a troubled young teen, and the family she never knew. When Sarah is thrust into the lives of Tom, William, and Myra, she is dragged along on a camping trip deep into the wilderness. They face a heavy task: tending the grave of Sarah’s great-great-grandfather in preparation for a mining operation that is coming to the region. However, once they enter the woods, Sarah begins to see improbable things and falls into an impossible story that leaves all of them changed and challenges the claim the mining operation has on the region. I won’t say anymore here so that you can be surprised like I was.
Like all books, Strong Heart had its positive and negative points. There are a lot of things I loved: the setting, the nostalgic feel of camping and exploration, the science, and the pervasive sense of magic and history. If you love magic realism, you will love how the magic is woven into this story. I also loved the tone in the narration. It felt deep and filled with a legacy. It felt like someone was physically telling me a story. It was also exciting to have a story set deep in the wilderness, something I have been wanting to read but have not been able to find lately. And as a scientist, I loved the discussions of genetics and scientific theory.
There were only a few things I did not particularly like. The first was that some of the book was confusing. I spent the entire first half of the book trying to decipher and remember the relationships between the characters, and I’m still not sure about them. Additionally, I feel like there could have been more development in the characters earlier in the book, which would have helped with the confusion. I really wish we had more from Sarah’s point of view. Another part I wished was different was the structure of the story itself. It could have been more powerful if it was just slightly rearranged. It felt like the focus, the real story, should have been Sarah’s story, but it was organized in a strange way, particularly toward the beginning, and the transitions between her vision and the rest felt rough and disjointed. It would have been easier for the reader if the author indicated at the beginning of those chapters that it was from her perspective. There were also a few typos, but they did not take away from the story at all. My only real complaint is that the story stopped too soon! I wanted to see so much, and we didn’t get to see it.
I really loved this book and how it was written. It was personally nostalgic for me, and it was filled with a magic that felt as if it could exist in our world. I loved that. There were a few aspects of the story that were confusing for me or felt awkward, but I would still highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a magic realism story similar to Neil Gaiman’s stories. I felt the magic with every page turned and wished I knew more about a time period in which I had never before been interested. For these reasons and more, I give it 4 out of 4 stars.
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