Fate, often enough, arrives as a beanball. Down you go, a crumple in the dirt. Then, through the pain and vapors, you see a hissing curveball coming your way. That’s when life gets interesting.
Just so for the main characters in two alluring new young-adult titles by upstate New Yorkers: Way of Water by Lee Welles and Welcome to Camden Falls by Ann M. Martin. The central characters in both books have lost their parents, a beanball of the most concussive order. Dazed and hurting, they are rudely uprooted by the following curve and packed off to challenging parts unknown, where weighty ethical issues will be dropped in their 10-year-old laps.
Miho’s relocation is profoundly disorienting, from her parents’ marine-research vessel on America’s West Coast to Nagoya, Japan, where her anguished, chain-smoking, company-man of an uncle lives.
But counterpoint to Nagoya’s industrial stink are the salty breezes of Goza, a seaside village to which Miho and her uncle repair on the Japanese day of the dead. (Welles’s book is rich in Japanese cultural and artistic heritage.) Miho finds her calling, learning the ways of the ocean through deep communion, entering its flow state, and getting to work. An otter—sweet and serious, a manifestation of the Earth goddess, Gaia—will serve as her mentor and guide.
Miho’s job and Welles’s message are bell-clear: The ocean, font of life, needs protecting from the ignorant and/or greedy humans who are busy trashing the habitat through pollution, bottom trawling, and the ritualistic hunt and commercial slaughter of its great minds, the cetaceans.
Welles’s story, the second in the Gaia Girls series, operates as a cautionary environmental tale and an enveloping fantasy. It works because her otherworldly undersea realm is not so much concocted as discovered: Miho’s talking with the dolphins is lucidly imagined, Gaia’s words have a runic simplicity, and the fabric of the fantasy is never torn, even when riding the ping of a whale’s song. Readers can—should—get engaged.
While Way of Water is a crash course in moral duty, Welcome to Camden Falls also presents an ethical task: how to conduct yourself for the greater good. Martin, whose Babysitters Club series burned like prairie fire through the ranks of young adult readers, fashions a quaint village to soften 10-year-old Flora and her younger sister’s landing; a tidy, inclusive Massachusetts mill town, not without its crabby shopkeeper and bratty teenagers to provide Flora’s ethical test.
The book’s as cozy as a cat. Orphaned and aching, Flora nonetheless has a heart-gladdening grandmother, and her new homeplace is blanket-secure. Although Flora must grapple with numbing anxieties, others in town have crosses to bear: crippling injuries, Alzheimer’s, Down’s syndrome, scant incomes.
Martin slowly moves through the story’s gears, conjuring the landscape, making introductions (this is the first of the publisher’s Main Street series), unfolding memories, fattening a dirty secret. One neat trick, “a peek in the windows,” allows readers to steal glances into the everyday home life of Camden Falls.
The harmony of this environment, as with the ocean in Way of Water, is vulnerable, and a bad apple is spreading rot. Flora helps excise the fungus by simply doing the right thing, mindful of everyone’s best interests.
Well, duh, Flora’s sister might say. But empathy and understanding are rare birds. Like orphans—like us all—they respond to nurturing.