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“Remember all those stories you used to tell me?”

I started reading Hope Larson’s Salamander Dream as soon as it began online with the beginning of The Secret Friend Society and I’ve been wanting to write about it since it ended this summer. The story details the various trips a girl, Hailey, makes into the woods behind her house as she grows up and the interactions she has there with Salamander, a sort of magical personified salamander.

“Once upon a time,” the story begins, “there was a little girl very much like you.” And while I don’t know if all readers thought this spoke to them, I know it did to me. My parents moved a few months before I was born, meaning that these were not my woods and mine were more northern ones than North Carolina’s. My story would have had fewer pine trees, more limestone fossils, no chestnuts, but bigger ferns and King Solomon’s Seal. Perhaps because I think of Hailey as a girl very much like me, I don’t think this is a story about imaginary friends; I think it’s a love story. It’s a love story about stories and about the world and the way we can forget about those things as we get older and the importance of remembering them.

I’m still not sure if every story is in some ways a story about the creation of self through narrative, but seldom have I seen such a good example as the story teenaged Hailey tells Salamander starting on page 71. Her story swoops down through her body until subatomic particles make the same tracks that fireflies did in the outside world. (Or are they lightning bugs in North Carolina? This being a minimally wordy story, we never learn!) It’s as-above-so-below on every level, this a story of falling like Salamander’s bird ride was and really like every section of the Salamander Dream story is, dropping Hailey and the reader back in the woods for more of something. What that something is is different every time, but still united. The woods change, our understandings of the woods change, but there being woods somewhere doesn’t change.

One thing that makes this story so compelling and extraordinary (despite the in some ways quite simple subject matter) is that so little of it is told, and I don’t just mean that there aren’t many words. It’s that everything seems to flow and so much is subtext, faces appearing in the clouds or as clouds, the sky behind the pine trees like another row of pine trees, the moments of quiet recognition between Hailey and Salamander. While it’s a story about growing up and with content appropriate for all ages, I’m not sure how the story would read to someone who hasn’t moved away from home and the woods and childhood a bit. But maybe that’s me thinking this is a story about a girl a little too much like myself.

I suppose what I’m getting at (poorly, I’m afraid) is that Salamander Dream does an amazing amount with a little. There aren’t many words and it’s not a long story, but it’s a haunting one. I’m not sure if it was the contemplative experience of reading only one page a day that made it seem like the story itself had gotten into my blood and DNA and atoms and taken up residence there. It feels like it’s mine not because I identify but because it’s told so clearly and directly and without missteps. I get a little weepy at the ending every time because I don’t want to forget Salamander and the way the story makes me feel even as I read it on my laptop in my little apartment. It’s a little piece of spring that nestles inside me and helps me remember to help it grow. The story brings out all the needlessly florid metaphors in me that the text itself rejects. It’s plain and direct and deep and elusive, which I think is the point it’s trying to make about the essential qualities of life and nature, human and otherwise. We all need to be aware of quiet and the spaces between things and the way stories don’t always have easy endings but also the ways they connect and overlap and wind together, the ways we live in the world.

I’d like to say more about Salamander Dream, but it’s time for my own dreaming. And I know that every time I come back to the story I’ll be someone slightly different, growing up in my own way like Hailey. “But maybe she found another place in the world” like I hope we all do, like I hope I have done and continue to do. It’s not the same place but it might be similar, a place to reflect on old places. For me, this has been a weekend for that sort of thing and it was refreshing to reread Salamander Dream and let it pull me out of that and into something else, a kind of awareness of the now as part of all those pasts. I appreciate that and look forward to pushing into futures. And in the near future, I hope to read Salamander Dream in book form to see what the green on cream looks like between my hands, maybe near some grass this time, see what change that brings. Maybe it will give me another story to tell.


  1. Jamesmith3 says:

    See, you want to know something weird? You guys don’t write reviews, I know, yet when you write well about something, it makes a person want to go and read it anyway. That’s a useful skill.

    That’s an interesting thing I hadn’t thought of: that by serializing a story online, a page a day, you really shape the reader’s experience. If they like it, they’re likely to linger much longer than they would over one page out of 200 in a book. Hmm.

    — 13 September 2005 at 8:53 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Thanks, James. That is in some ways the goal and I don’t think I’d be a good reviewer anyway. But at least I can say things (sometimes).

    What I found especially interesting in Salamander Dream was that I’d often find myself paging back after reading the current page to make sure I was keeping things in context, but it was still a limited context. I think I paid a lot more attention because of that, since I knew I had to retain each day’s information to make tomorrow’s (or two days from now’s, when the site began) page make sense. That embeds it deeper in my thoughts than just turning pages. But also you can’t flip ahead, so there’s a sort of anticipation involved too but there’s nothing you as a reader can do to resolve it except wait.

    But I’m already a bad reader of comics by nature because I read text extremely quickly that it’s hard to retrain myself to really really take in the whole page, images and all. I think that’s one thing I like about unflipped Japanese manga, that the experience of reading “backwards” necessarily slows me down and I take in more than I might otherwise. I’ve had some success in learning to slow down and savor non-comics books, whereas in the past I’d have just read something three times fast if I wanted to read it deeply. I’m really interested in the ways people read, so I’m glad this prompted thoughts along those lines.

    — 13 September 2005 at 9:42 pm (Permalink)

  3. Shawn Hoke says:

    Rose, I just finished reading the book last night and you really helped sum up my feelings about it. Like you, I followed Salamander Dream and Jellaby(!) on Secret Friend Society each day, but it was even more magical sitting down with the book in my hands.

    The color is a little different, a brighter green, but the cumulative effect of flipping through the pages really creates an effective ending that sticks with you.

    Great review!

    — 14 September 2005 at 10:02 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    (Shawn, I thought I’d posted this response ages ago only to find it still sitting here on my computer. Oops. And it wasn’t really worth the wait, either.)

    Ooh, I’m glad to hear about the book! I haven’t gotten a copy yet, but I’m really looking forward to it.

    I miss Jellaby and hope it comes back someday in some form. I can’t imagine dealing with the pressure of keeping up with creating a story and getting it online, but I guess that’s why I just write an intermittent little blog.

    — 16 September 2005 at 4:50 pm (Permalink)

  5. “There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.” « surer tonic says:

    […] I’m inclined to believe I’m the problem, because one of the stories that spoke most strongly to me about this issue of creation of self was Hope Larson’s Salamander Dream, a book written by a woman a few years younger than I am that (as far as I can tell, certainly) draws heavily on a childhood like mine with significant time spent lost in thought in safe woods. So maybe what I’m trying to say is that I can talk about the creation of my own self but I can’t actually talk about how people do it in a larger sense. If I did, I’d end up saying, “You know, it’s like a pomegranate full of sweet bitterness and tiny rubies you miss if you pull them into your mouth to have enough to taste” and everyone else would say, “Nah, you’re just obsessed because you think you’re Persephone.” A lighthouse wouldn’t have done Persephone any good either, because I don’t think any light cuts the gray of death, but that’s hardly the point. I also don’t think the point is that housekeeping is and isn’t like keeping a lighthouse, that femininity is a constant beacon of its own, but what do I know? I’m just forcing my way through the messy seas, looking for a metaphor to hold. Posted by Rose Filed in Uncategorized […]

    — 10 July 2007 at 4:33 pm (Permalink)