Michael Lawrence,
Withern Rise #1:
A Crack in the Line

(Orchard, 2003;
Greenwillow, 2004)

Michael Lawrence has left me stunned. His weapon was Withern Rise #1: A Crack in the Line, a slim book seemingly too small to inflict such grievous trauma. But I've spent the hours since reading it in a stupor, scared and searching for one of the alternate realities lying on the grounds of the Victorian mansion in the title.

This is powerful, devastating writing, made more effective because it seems to draw its power from nowhere. The story begins innocently enough, if with a somewhat dark tone. Alaric is a 16-year-old boy living with his father in the old mansion of Withern Rise. He still grieves for mother, dead two years. Sunk in his own depression, Alaric spends his time trying to honor that grief by making his own situation as miserable as possible, until the day he lays his hands on a model of the house built by his mother. The contact, and his painful emotions, somehow combine to transport him to another Withern Rise, with another 16-year-old living his life except this one is a girl named Naia, and her mother is alive. Once the identities are worked out, the two teens begin arguing, studying and generally trying to figure out the mysterious force that lets them step into each other's almost parallel realities. These investigations often focus on the most obvious and disturbing difference to the two children: why does one of them still have a mother? What makes one outcome happen in which world? And most tantalizing of all, can those worlds influence each other?

The story goes along, seeming little more than a pressing bit of alternate-reality musing. The fact that I couldn't put the book down, even to make dinner, was interesting, but the book had my attention too fully to think about the significance of that fact. The main characters, Alaric and Naia, evoke emotions both polarizing and complex. Alaric is an unpleasant child, intentionally sullen. He withholds information that might change both his fate and Naia's. He does nothing to help himself or others. But his loss is massive, and no child or honest adult will be able to hold off some sympathy. Indeed, at the beginning he is much less privileged, and therefore much more appealing, than Naia. But Naia is kind, smart, bright and self-directed. She is capable of forgiving a colossal and almost incomprehensible loss at the end of the tale. And when her time comes to grieve, she accepts her troubles without any of the assistance or sympathy that Alaric receives, and without falling into his tangle of self pity.

Not everything in the tale seems wholly germane to the narrative. Alaric's forays into other alternative realities seem almost a distraction, as does the presence of Aldous Underwood, a seeming stray from yet another alternate reality. Still these adventures don't detract from the main story, and they, along with the title of Withern Rise #1, offer some hope that this is not the end of the story for Alaric and Naia.

That's some relief, since the ending is where Crack in the Line delivers its most stunning blow. Or, as befits a tale so wrapped up in alternate worlds and diverging possibilities, a possible most stunning blow. It's hard to believe this book is being directed to the children's market; the complexity of endings, to say nothing of the thoughtful fears in the story itself, seem very mature indeed. But children may be able to enjoy the world of endless possibilities and the potential offered by the mixed endings without feeling compelled to find the "real" one.

Michael Lawrence offers no answer to that question. Except, perhaps, that all answers are as real as the answer of a flipped coin still spinning in the air. It's that haunting possibility that makes Withern Rise #1: A Crack in the Line something genuinely wonderful and terrifying, and absolutely demanding to be read.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 5 March 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.