Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat

Mourlevat, Jean-Claude (2006). The Pull of the Ocean. New York: Random House. ISBN 0385903642.

The Pull of the Ocean (originally written in French and called L’enfant Ocean) may read like a familiar tale. Just as in Tom Thumb, the English version of the French tale, Le Petit Poucet, there is a family of nine, a mother, father, three sets of twin boys and a “mal-formed” child. And just as in Tom Thumb, the smallest boy overhears his parents talking and believes that they are going to do the children harm because they can not afford to feed them. So, in the middle of the night, the smallest child—called Yann in this story—wakes the brothers in the middle of the night and convinces them to flee. Yann is mute and speaks through sign language but has an uncanny ability to communicated sophisticated thoughts, especially instructions, to his six brothers. He also has a bizarre sense of direction—probably where the English title came from—and sets them on a journey toward Bordeaux… Toward the ocean. After much hardship and encounters with many different people, the children finally end up imprisoned in a mansion in which they have taken refuge. They can hear the ocean from their dark dungeon—the prize they have spent hungry, tired and wet days of traveling to reach—but are afraid they will now die waiting to be rescued…Never to sea their prize. However, they find a hidden telephone, call their mother—who has been desperately (and ironically) searching for them—and before long are freed by paramedics. All but Yann, who can not be found. The story is told through the points of view of not only the children themselves, but through short snippets of the personalities with which they come in contact. That is how we finally understand what has happened to Yann—through the eyes of an old sea captain who discovers an otherworldly-looking, angelic youth stowed away on his ship.

The story is compelling on its own. It is a crafty retelling of an old tale, with the spin of letting us see the children through the eyes of the different people they encounter—including each other. Because we get to see the situation from so many different points of view, we have the opportunity to “walk a mile” (and really not much more than a mile) of many different people who are, well, different. It is an interesting (and accurate, in my experience having lived in France for three years) opportunity for the reader to live vicariously—to for one moment imagine what life would be like, what perception would be like, in someone else’s mind.

As for cultural markings, not only are there too many to mention while doing them justice, the book itself is French and any remarks I might make on the cultural clues, while probably pretty accurate (alluding back to my intimate knowledge of the French language and culture) would still be seen through an American eye.

Still, this story would be a wonderful book for children (and adults) of nearly any age. For younger children, it’s just a great story—a retelling of a classic tale. For older children, it would be a great way to lead to a discussion of how our filters color our perception—how two people could see so differently the same exact even or situation (even amongst two twins who are purported to be so intimately mentally aligned).

The Pull of the Ocean was the winner of the Prix Sourcieres in France.

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Starred Review. A mute 10-year-old boy stars in this inventive modern-day play on Charles Perrault's Tom Thumb. Yann, the size of a toddler, is the youngest of seven sons of poor, sour parents and the only one who is not a twin ("Yann came last and alone. Like the period at the end of a sentence"). The lad silently communicates with his brothers, but never with his parents. One night, he overhears his parents bickering and awakens his siblings, letting them know that their father plans to harm them (the author reveals the actual content of the couple's conversation later). Yann then leads the three sets of twins out into the rainy darkness. The peripatetic story weaves together first-person accounts by each twin as well as individuals who have spotted or interacted with the children. Under Yann's direction (he navigates by turning his head in all directions and then pointing the way), the brothers traverse the French countryside, heading west toward the ocean. The story takes a dark turn before they are reunited with their seemingly softened parents. Yet Yann slips away once more, stowing away on a merchant marine ship to continue his journey west. The captain observes, "I had the sudden impression that this child wasn't real, that he had stepped right out of a fairy tale." Indeed, Mourlevat enchantingly blends the harshly real and the make-believe, with the latter tipping the balance as this effectively haunting, fluidly translated tale comes to a close. Ages 12-up.

School Library Journal:
Starred Review. Grade 5–8—A well-crafted mystery awaits anyone reading this fabled jigsaw puzzle. Multiple narratives, each from the point of view of the cast of characters, meticulously reveal pieces of the puzzle while the story slowly unfolds. It is not until the end that one realizes the broader scope of what has happened. Tiny for his age, Yann Doutreleau gathers his three sets of twin brothers together to flee their dismal home after he hears their father's plans to kill them the next day. Malnourished and poorly clothed, the seven boys head out in stormy weather toward the ocean. Only Yann stands out as an oddity and they must carry him in a sack to avoid attention. On their journey, they cross paths with a list of unsuspecting characters, each strangely compassionate toward the boys' plight, each unknowingly contributing to a doomed adventure. Poverty and hardship echo throughout this modern "Tom Thumb" story, but it is ultimately the spirit of brotherhood that is the highlight of this tale. It is a memorable novel that readers will find engaging and intellectually satisfying

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