The Alphabet Stones, Ursula Pflug. Blue Denim Press, September 2013, ISBN 9780988147836. Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
Ursula Pflug’s The Alphabet Stones is less about the titular magical objects than the effects of the intrusion of the numinous on the lives of a knot of teenagers. Here are no quests or adventures, only the struggle to cope when life takes an unexpected and hard to understand turn.
Growing up in a rural commune in Canada after her mentally ill mother is committed, fourteen-year-old Jody is independent and capable, bitterly conscious of the neglect she and the other commune children experience and quietly scornful of the adults around her. “Teenagers are morons. Truth is, adults are too. Hardly any of them get any wiser; they just learn to hide their fuckwittedness or to work around it.” (26) She prefers to company of her Algonquin neighbors and her fellow commune teen Ethan, who is hopelessly in love with Jody’s older sister and with whom Jody is hopelessly in love. This isn’t a love-triangle story of the sort that crowd the YA shelves today; it focuses instead on the ways in which despite the best intentions, people often cannot fulfill each other’s needs.
And Jody is full of need. She narrates the story of her adolescence from the vantage point of adulthood, her reminisces interspersed with stories of the poetry-writing coffee shop owner she’s found a refuge with after running away from the life she can no longer deal with. Only by excavating her strange past can she cease to be haunted by it. Slowly she arrives at the supernatural crux of the story– the re-entry of her mother into her life and the arrival of the magical brother she never knew she had. The magical world is not especially interesting, and hints of a broader purpose to the magical beings’ return are dangled and then never developed. But the magic is not the point; the relationships and their repercussions are.
Like her mother, Jody found herself forced to choose between worlds. Except Jody doesn’t have enough information to even understand that she making a choice, and she is forced to live with the consequences of her mother’s decision as well as her own. The climactic scenes in which Jody and Ethan part and Jody realizes what she’s chosen are precise and intense.
As Jody slowly recovers and writes her story, her past and present converge, and she experiences a bittersweet reunion with the lost loved ones of her teenage years. While the epilogue veers into the saccharine, Jody and Ethan’s bittersweet relationship keeps the resolution nicely complex. “I no longer want beauty,” the grown-up Jody discovers as Ethan reappears in her life, “I want to be whole.” (201) In a healing as mysterious as the original loss, she is finally allowed to have both.