Friday, October 31, 2014

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

Set during the First World War, Crossing Stones is the story of two families who live across from one another on Crabapple Creek. Frost has structured her novel in a unique way, with four separate narrators who tell their stories in free verse.

The Jorgensen family including Muriel and her younger siblings, sixteen year old Ollie and seven year old Grace, live across Crabapple Creek from the Norman family which includes Emma and Frank and their parents.The novel opens in April, 1917 with Muriel questioning her teacher, Mr. Sanders, during class as to why all the "real life" secretaries are women but in school they only learn about men secretaries. Muriel is angry to learn from the president that the United States will send men to fight in the war. Ollie is still to young to enlist, but Frank has been in basic training in Kansas for the past six months. The president tells the nation he will need an army of 500,000 men.

Mr. Sanders talks to Muriel's parents telling them she has no "moral compass" when she questions America's involvement in the war. While Muriel's mother is ashamed, her father defends her freedom to express her opinions. Mr. Sanders tells them that if she continues to question the decision the president has made, other students "may wonder if their classmates are risking their lives for nothing." Papa tells Muriel that she must be careful in the future about people like Mr. Sanders who believe others have no right to different opinions.

Ollie wants to go to fight but he's too young yet. Instead he helps Emma's family while Frank is away by mending fences. Ollie figures by helping out he will build up his muscles so he can look older and enlist illegally. He tells Grace he will make her a playhouse of the scrap wood.

In the poem, Socks, Muriel talks about the expectations of their families. Emma Norman is her best friend and Frank and Ollie are like brothers, but with Frank coming home on leave next week before he ships out, their mothers seem to have the expectation that Muriel will become the next Mrs. Norman. Muriel likes Frank as a friend but she knows she cannot marry him.

Frank arrives home for tens day of leave after which he will be shipped overseas. Both families have a huge dinner at the Normans home to celebrate his homecoming. During his leave, Muriel graduates from high school. Despite being smarter than all the boys, Arthur Anderson is valedictorian as a result of Muriel being given a D in comportment, likely the result of her questioning Mr. Sanders view on the war. Muriel feels Arthur's speech makes no sense.

                                 "Why is everyone just doing what they're told?
                         The presidents of all the countries should
                 meet somewhere and fight this war themselves
        if they think it's worth fighting.
What are they sacrificing? Have they asked the mothers
        who gave the best years of their lives to raise
                 these boys the presidents are sending into battle?
                            No! Women don't even get to vote -- it isn't fair!

Frank thinks Muriel sounds like the suffragettes. Muriel enjoys her graduation dancing with all the boys but Arthur. On the way home, Frank mentions about all the local boys who are enlisting and then suddenly asks Muriel for a kiss. Frank wants to have a girl back home to write to when he is in France, "someone to keep fighting for". Muriel refuses because she doesn't want to just be "someone" whom Frank hurriedly chooses before going off to war. Refusing Frank a kiss results in an argument with Emma who feels this might have been good for Frank while he's at war.

With Frank and many of the other men gone to war, women begin filling in for the men. Muriel's Mama decides to go work for a shop manager as a bookkeeper "for the duration" and the housework falls to Muriel. When Muriel's mother tells her how important mothers are because they raise their children to be honest, Muriel questions the wisdom of this when these children are then sent off to fight wars.

Shortly after Frank is sent overseas, Ollie slips away, taking the train to the city to secretly enlist. Muriel and her family find out when the mailman brings a letter later that day from Ollie explaining what he's done. Muriel's Papa wants to go retrieve Ollie, but Mr. Norman persuades him that doing so might land Ollie in jail.

Meanwhile in July 1917, Papa tells Muriel that the government has passed a law, the Espionage Act,  punishing people who speak out against the war. Papa warns Muriel to be careful and he worries about his sister, Muriel's Aunt Vera, who is involved with the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote for women.

Virginia Arnold holding Kaiser banner.
Frank's letters to Emma and his parents tell of adventure. His letters to Muriel are heavily censored, leading Muriel to wonder if the war is right, why are the soldier's letters blacked out. Ollie too is beginning to regret having signed up and wonders if Muriel was right. A letter from Aunt Vera tells about the protests by the suffragettes and that she is going to Washington to join the picket line in front of the White House. She plans to be in Washington only a week and will stop to visit Muriel.

However shortly after Muriel's father receives a letter from Vera telling them about a controversial sign the suffragettes have made equating President Wilson with the Kaiser of Germany. Vera has been arrested and is in jail. The protests in Washington with new suffragettes replacing those who are arrested mimic the war effort as new soldiers fill in for those who are killed. Frank writes to Muriel that they can't seem to stop a war that is consuming millions.

And then one Saturday afternoon, the lives of the Jorgensen and Norman families are changed forever with the news that Frank has been killed in action. While trying to comfort Emma, Muriel struggles to deal with her own grief for a man she did not want to marry but she certainly wanted to return home safe and sound. Frank's death marks the beginning of several crises that Muriel and her family must deal with leading her to make some hard but different choices about how she will live her life.


Crossing Stones is an exquisitely crafted novel, from its expressive jacket art by Richard Tuschman to the uniquely structured poems within. Frost deals with two major historical events in her novel, the entry of the United States into the Great War and the suffragette movement to achieve the right to vote for women. These two dramas are the backdrop for the simple farm life of two families, knit together by the bonds of friendship and love. There are two prospective couples, Ella Norman and Ollie Jorgensen and Muriel Jorgensen and Ella's brother Frank. Ella and Ollie share a mutual affection for one another that eventually leads to love. However, Frank and Muriel, although good friends in a brother-sister sort of way, do not know what they want. Frank seems to feel an attraction to Muriel but he's a cautious person by nature and without the encouraging cues from Muriel only  decides to push their friendship before he leaves for France. This makes him seem a bit calculating which puts Muriel off. And Muriel doesn't like their families' expectations that she will some day marry Frank.

Frank's final letter to Muriel, which comes with his personal affects weeks after his death, reveals the deep conflict he felt over fighting and killing other men, how the truth of the war was being kept out of the newspapers and how Muriel's questions about the war lead him to doubt deeply about what was happening and to hesitate to kill. For Muriel, these revelations have a lasting effect.

"A bullet and a bandage for the wound
         it causes, all in one small envelope.
                  My questions may have caused a hesitation
                           that cost Frank his...his certainty.
                  His life? However long I live, it won't
         be long enough to silence that suggestion."

Grace's drawing is a foreshadowing of Frank's death; the picture showing the crossing stones with Emma and Ollie and "a stone with no one on it, my hand stretched out toward it, reaching out to someone who's not there."

While everyone is struggling to come to some kind of terms with Frank's death, Ollie arrives home, having lost an arm while saving a fellow soldier from being run over by a tank. Emma who is trying to cope with the loss of her brother, now has to deal with what has happened to Ollie. Despite being changed by his experiences in the war, Ollie is helped to heal by the wonderful acceptance and love of Emma.

Besides exploring the issues surrounding the First World War, Frost also includes much information about the what suffragette movement in the United States during the year 1917. This is done through the eyes of Muriel who writes about the picketing women and their treatment by men in Washington, their arrest and the forced feeding of the suffragettes.

Another aspect I found especially appealing in Crossing Stones was Frost's positive portrayal of family life at the turn of the century. The Norman family suffers the loss of their only son, Frank, and in response to this tragedy, Muriel's Mama goes over to stay with Mrs. Norman. When Ollie returns home recovering from the loss of his arm, Muriel's family pulls together to help him recover, but Muriel also offers him the space on their walks to talk about the war and what he experienced. It is these talks that help Ollie to begin to heal.  When Grace becomes ill with the influenza that is sweeping through the towns, Emma carries her to the stream so Ollie can take her and Mrs. Norman brings soup for Grace.

The poetry in this book is nothing short of impressive. In a note at the back of the book Helen Frost provides her readers with some information on the form and structure of her poetry which she wanted to reflect the idea of "stepping from stone to stone across a creek". Muriel's poems look like a meandering river while Ollie and Emma's poems are representative of the stepping stones. Their poems are " 'cupped-hand sonnets,' fourteen-line poems in which the first line rhymes with the last line, the second line rhymes with the second-to-last, and so on, so that the seventh and eighth lines rhyme with each other at the poem's center." However, while the rhyming words are found at the end of the lines in Emma's poems, in Ollie's poems the rhyming words are the first in each line. Frost goes on to explain further how Ollie and Emma's poems are connected to each other.

Crossing Stones is a wonderful historical novel that conveys both the horror of World War 1 as experienced by both the men who fought and their families back home, as well as the determination and pluck the suffragettes demonstrated as they fought for the right to be politically equal to men. Creative, unique, poignant and sensitive in its treatment of these issues and of families torn apart by a senseless war and a changing social order, Crossing Stones is a true gem.

Book Details:

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost
New York: Frances Foster Books      2009
184 pp.

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