Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a retelling of "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Anderson, yes, but it might be more fitting to say this is an homage to all of Anderson's tales because there are a great many of them incorporated into this one. The heart of the story is "The Snow Queen" though, or rather, what it symbolizes. Growing up, changing, leaving old friends behind, and discovering who one is as a person. Hazel and Jack have been best friends forever. Hazel does not know who she is without Jack, and she reminds him someone knows he's still there when he feels invisible. These kids have suffered through some rough times together. Hazel's dad left and Jack was there for her. Jack's mom is seriously depressed and Hazel is there for him. But one day Jack stops talking to Hazel. Her mother tells her this is normal and that it is natural for friends to grow apart as they get older. Hazel knows something is wrong with Jack because he would not just stop being her friend. Then he disappears. His parents claim he is gone to assist an elderly relative Hazel knows he doesn't have. When another friend of Jack's confesses he saw Jack being taken into the woods by a mysterious other worldly woman in the snow, Hazel sets off on a quest to rescue him and bring him home.
The story is split into two parts. The first lays the background of Hazel and Jack, their characters and friendship, and how it all begins to fall apart. The second part is Hazel's journey through the magical land to rescue Jack. Hazel is a wonderful and sympathetic heroine. She reads a lot and lives in imaginary worlds most of the time. Jack is her companion on her adventures and her only friend. She has trouble at school, being new to the way public school works, and hates every moment she is there. When Jack plays with his other friends at recess, she reads. Any child who has ever spent their days gazing out a window and relegating their teacher's voice to background noise will find a kindred spirit in Hazel. What is unique about Ursu's treatment of this is the story demonstrates that Hazel is in need of help. Imagination is all well and good, but sometimes you do have to live in the real world. Friendship is a marvelous thing, but you must be able to function as an individual as well. Hazel has to learn these lessons the hard way and so into the woods she goes. Hazel has a realization as she is walking toward Jack: "This is what it is to live in the world.You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." I like this because it is true. Especially the "little bit" part. Hazel's journey has her learning, not only about herself, but also about how to reconcile fantasy and reality. And why its necessary to survive.
The magical woods Hazel journeys through is not a happy place. It is not the type of fantasy land that kids will be wanting to find a way into. Hazel has imagined herself in all of those fantasy worlds many of times, and so is not prepared for awaits her. This fantasy world doesn't play by the rules. The witch is not an evil ruler. She does not need defeating. This is a place where no one can be trusted and danger lurks in light as well as in shadow. Hazel is witness to some terrible and devastating magic. It is an interesting concept, but there were times when I wondered what the point of it all was. Not that there needs to be a point, but there were several quotes that left me pondering what the author was trying to say with all of this. My initial impression is that the themes are a bit muddled, as if Uru herself were unsure she wanted to say something specific. To me it had a very postmodern feel which is a contrast to Anderson's original tale, which definitely had a very specific theme about the power of love. It felt to me that was lost in this retelling, but it isn't a book that can be fully analyzed on one read through. This is partly why I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half.
It is all a little dark but there are moments of humor too. Like when Hazel encounters a wolf upon entering the forest, "She'd read once that if you ran into a bear in the woods you should avoid eye contact and you shouldn't run away, but all she knew about wolves was that you should never tell them how to find your grandmother's house." And when the witch comes to fetch Jack she asks, "Would you like some Turkish delight?...Just a little joke."
The book is a story lovers playground. Not only are the Anderson tales but Ursu makes reference Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Wonderland, Oz, L'Engle, Stead's When You Reach Me, and Gaiman's Coraline. Those were the ones I caught, there were probably more. The language is beautiful and yet not complicated. I recommend this for anyone who loves a good story.