Each of Helen Frost’s poems in Diamond Willow–a coming-of-age story about a young half-Athabascan girl whose inexperience sledding dogs nearly costs one of the dogs his life–glitters like a highly polished diamond.
It’s not just the words that sparkle and shine with such radiance, it’s that Frost has arranged each poem on the page to resemble a diamond–the same diamond pattern that appears in the wood of a diamond willow, so called because of the shapes that are hidden beneath the bark.
Frost says in the introduction that she got the idea for Willow’s story from a lamp made from diamond willow that she remembers as a child and from a diamond willow walking stick that she received as a gift and which hung in her study as she thought about the story and wrote the poems
“Diamond willow grows in northern climates,” writes Frost. “It has rough gray bark, often crusted with gray-green lichen. Removing the bark and sanding and polishing the stick reveals reddish-brown diamonds, each with a small dark center.”
By including at the center of each poem a “hidden” message in darker ink, Frost replicates those small, dark centers within the diamonds and adds another dimension to each poem.
The result is quite stunning.
Not only does the reader move through the story in the voice of Willow, the young narrator, but the reader is able to grasp her emotions hidden beneath the surface and which are revealed (much like the small dark centers are revealed after polishing diamond wood) in the darker print at the center of the poems.
What’s truly stunning about these poems–even more than their delicate architecture–are the voices that emerge from them.
In addition to Willow’s voice, Frost offers readers the voices of her mother and father, her grandparents, her best friend, and, amazingly, the voices of ancestors now inhabiting the creatures (dogs, foxes, spruce hens, mice, lynx) who help guide Willow and protect her as she searches for a way out of a potentially life-threatening dilemma.
It’s risky for a writer to rely on such techniques. Some readers might feel the diamond-shaped poems with the dark centers are mere gimmicks.
But in this case, Willow’s story is so strong, the emotional undercurrents so compelling, that the technique used here, rather than interfere with the storytelling, actually draws the reader into the story and takes the reader to a deeper level inside the main character.
The diamond images echo throughout the story and don’t feel imposed on the poems. Rather, they seem to emerge naturally out of Willow’s relationship to the natural beauty surrounding her.
Maybe that’s the key to the question that’s tugging at the back of my mind and which some readers voiced in their reviews of the book: when is it appropriate to use unusual techniques like this?
My sense is that if the technique helps deepen the reader’s understanding of the character and her world without feeling artificial, then it’s ok to use.
If not– if it feels like an added layer that the author has imposed on the story, a distraction–then it’s best to forgo the technique and tell the story in the traditional way.
If you’ve read Diamond Willow, or any other book that relies on an unusual device to tell a story, let us know your thoughts when you get a chance.
For further discussion of Diamond Willow, visit:
And to read more about Helen Frost, visit her website: http://www.helenfrost.net/