|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
AdHouse Books (2005)
Once upon a time, there was a little girl very much like you. Her name was Hailey, and she lived on the furthest edge of a very small city, in the exact place where the suburbs began turning to countryside. Beside her house was a little wood, and when summer came she'd kick off her shoes and run into the trees, where it was easier to believe in magic.
Thus begins Salamander Dream, a delightful and dreamlike graphic novel by Hope Larson. At its core, the story is a simple one of a young girl growing up and her relationship with a special friend during that time. Dedicated to "lost best friends," it can be read as a love letter to the friends, alive or imaginary, of our childhoods.
The young girl is Hailey, who ventures into the woods at different times in her life and has encounters with an odd creature called Salamander. In her youth, it's clear that she visits him often, and he tells her tales about nature as they frolic and play. As she gets older and makes new friends, they see each other less as Salamander worries that she's too busy and no longer wants to be his friend. But when they reunite, their friendship picks up where it left off, and Salamander tells her another story. Hailey doesn't return again until she is grown and ready to go off to school, but she seeks out Salamander before she leaves, and this time she tells him a story of her own.
The simplicity of the plot combines with the almost picture book quality of the book (only one third of the pages have words), to create a fluid and ethereal reading experience. The artwork fluctuates between detailed realism, a fluid, cartoon-y style, and an almost totemic look for Salamander and his animal friends. All of these styles flow together seamlessly, sometimes all appearing in one panel, and this adds to the dreamlike symbology that forms the crux of the book.
The stories that Salamander tells, along with Hailey's story at the end, are wordless, and it becomes incumbent upon the reader to interpret their meaning. Salamander's stories can be read as simple adventures under the water and in the sky, or, in a manner reminiscent of Once In A Future King, can be interpreted as lessons in the relative shortness of life and a finding of oneself in the very crisis of losing ones self. Or, one imagines, in any number of other ways.
When Hailey visits Salamander for the last time, she tells him a story that encapsulates her understanding of who she is and how she fits in and connects with Salamander, and with the universe. Whether you choose to believe that Salamander is real or imaginary (Larson never indicates for certain), it is clear that this childhood friend is instrumental in Hailey's growth as an individual, and her understanding of her place in the world.
Whether read as a testament to the influence of childhood friends, an ode to the power of nature, or a dreamlike fable, Salamander Dream is a book to dip into again and again.