Good writing is hard to find. I've read dozens of books this year, most of them have been mediocre. But there have been some really good ones, even some great ones. Mooncalf is a great book, and I hope it finds as large an audience as possible.
One of the most admirable things about Mooncalf is that it's difficult to find a single wasted word in the entire book. Granted the book is short; yet, it is very rare to find a book which treats with such delicacy the choosing of each word--each adjective, verb, and noun. Themes, motifs, and symbols are everywhere throughout Mooncalf, and most impressive of all none of it is discarded. Motifs and themes exist in big and small circles in Mooncalf, circling back in on themselves as well as intertwining themselves with the plot and the characters that inhabit it. And those motifs and themes, those messages and those symbols, don't go away once you've finished the book. They stick with you. It's hard to forget Mooncalf.
Linda L. Zern does an outstanding job of creating a place and time. Florida is uniquely equipped for stories. Swamplandia! was also able to evoke a similar feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time. (Too bad Swamplandia! wasn't very good). But creating a geographic location and a specific point in history doesn't make for a great story. Readers need characters to love or hate. Mooncalf has both types of characters. The two protagonists, young girls named Leah and Olympia, are vivid and real. You'll hope for them and hurt for them. They are what sticks with you when you complete Mooncalf and wonder what could have been different for them both.
Mooncalf is not perfect. My biggest grumble about the book are the illustrations. Although rendered well enough, with some being quite evocative, they felt superfluous and at times distracted from the story. The writing is more than sufficient to create a place and time, as mentioned earlier, and the addition of the illustrations wasn't really needed. Additionally, there is one particular perspective shift in the story (a shift to first person) that was extremely jarring from a reader's perspective and took me out of the story. Make no mistake, there is far, far more to love about Mooncalf than to not.
Mooncalf is a tragedy and, therefore, won't be for everyone. I even wonder if the story, especially its ending, could have been different and still been as poignant. Yet, after thinking it over several times, I wouldn't change a thing. There are several moments in the book that hit me as a reader like a punch to the chest and subsequently ripped my heart out. In the final analysis, it's a sad, sad book, but not hopeless. I think there is enough love between Leah and Olympia to show the audience that things could be different if we want them to be.
I can't help but compare Mooncalf to To Kill a Mockingbird. The setting, its message, its mood, and its characters all lend themselves to that comparison, and it's a fine comparison to make. Harper Lee told a great story and so has Linda L. Zern. Mooncalf should be read. It's one of the best books I've read this year and most certainly one of the most memorable I've ever read. I wouldn't miss the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, and have your heart broken by it.
Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown