Winner of a 2017 Newbery Honor.
Winner of the 2016 New England Book Award.
The Beginning of the Experiment
Somewhere in this world, right now, one giant dog barks madly at the breathy thump of a bottled comet taking flight while a girl still a bit shy of a yard gazes into the crannies of an old boat, thrilled to catch the eye of a simpatico spider. At the same time, thirty-seven years later, this girl finds herself sitting at a stop light, bemused by the bumper sticker on the truck in front of her: “If you can read this,” it says, “thank a teacher. If it’s in English, thank a soldier.” She screams herself silent, her face bathed in blood, while the sky crackles with meteors, the sea rises, and white worms fall from nowhere like fat, voracious seeds. How can she stomach the smile exacted by an iron bit? How can she watch the slow demise of her own best inventions? At every turn, she is baffled by something, not least the endless confusion of being here. But as her experiment unfolds, she feels herself preparing to breathe again. And she finds herself at the bottom of the pool with Billy, forgiving him.
Her name is Ophelia, but she hasn’t called herself this since reading Hamlet in high school. She was often known as Oph when she was little, but for years she has gone by Lia. Everyone spells it Leah, of course, and she always corrects them, even though she feels a certain kinship with Jacob’s homely wife. “It’s like Mia,” she says, “with an L.”
Lia’s an observant woman, always the first to spot the bushy spout of a humpback or to save the wooly bears that tumble like furry marbles in the teeth of her rake. Her eyes are the color of winter moss, their lids lazy, the skin beneath them inclined to pouch, but they’re sharp as a giraffe’s. She wonders if this anatomical blessing makes her aware of what others miss, but how can she see that there are things she doesn’t see?
Much more obvious is the loveliness of the forests and bogs and beaches of Cape Cod where Lia’s made her home. Now, while the leaves are dying beautifully all around her, she tramps through the woods saying goodbye. She loves the slowly rusting oak trees. The steadfast pines. The waxy white Indian pipes and ruddy teaberries that quietly, humbly offer up their persistent beauty.
She worships the vivid blare of toadstools. The cool moss green as limes. The umber necktie the black snake sports at his sunbath. She allies herself with them all.
Lia believes that she so values color in part because she herself feels so drab. Other than the lumpy, purple scar that keeps her from wearing bikinis, and the vivid crimson that stains too many of her memories, Lia is a study in browns and averages, and she considers herself very ordinary. When she once said that she felt drawn to anything that glittered, her friend, Corina, suggested that perhaps, in a former life, Lia had been a queen. To this, Lia said, “Either that or a crow.”
At the sight of a red bird at its bath, or an acre of orange ditch lilies craning their slender necks toward the sun, she is therefore overcome if not with envy, then certainly with longing.
Lia counts her blessings when she wakes one October morning to a salmon-pink sky and clouds pearly as nacre, but it makes her sad to think that many of the earth’s creatures are colorblind and will never know pink or blue or red. She wonders, then, whether there are similar miracles of which she herself will never be aware.
As she enters the high school where she teaches English, she’s thinking of the zinnias that her older son, Sam, planted among her tomatoes when he was little. How they bloomed all summer and beyond, spangles of pure, persistent color, like a lasting, particulate rainbow.
Lia’s juniors have become accustomed to her frequent excursions off the beaten path and therefore take it in stride when she asks, on that October morning, not about their homework or the papers they’re writing but whether they’ve ever considered the nature of color.
“What do you mean?” asks a diminutive boy named Aaron who wears his pants so low on his hips that he often falls when walking up stairs. In this, he’s like many boys. In his gift for earning the trust of other children, he’s unique. It is to Aaron that they come when they have a problem. He always seems to know what to do.
Lia wonders what she would have done if she’d had an Aaron in her life when she was a child and feared nearly everything.
She remembers watching, in second grade, a film about how to survive a nuclear blast. It was simple, really. All she had to do was get under her chair and then, after the explosion, throw her desk through the classroom window and climb out. If she was hungry, all she had to do to avoid radiation poisoning was tip over a loaf of bread and slit open the bottom of the plastic sleeve. The bread in the film was Wonder Bread. The woman demonstrating how to avoid the radioactive dust on the top of the bag was wearing a pretty dress, but it was impossible to tell what color it was because the film was in black and white.
While Lia lay in bed each night and waited for the nuclear missiles that were surely arcing up over the Pole from Russia, headed for a house in Plymouth, Massachusetts, she also imagined that a fire was starting at that very moment, somewhere in the house. And what if there really is a fire but I don’t do anything about it and we all die? she’d ask herself. Then it would be my fault. Despising herself but helpless in the face of her relentless obsessions, she would then creep through the house, sniffing the air, listening for the crackling of flames.
Lia never told her parents about her nightly excursions. She was afraid they’d think she was crazy.
She wished that they all lived in a smaller house, so she and her sister Beth had to share a room. There were, in fact, some nights when she slipped into her sister’s bed for company, for the sound of Beth softly snoring. But Beth outgrew Lia before Lia outgrew her terror. And then she was truly alone.
Thirty-five years later, she tells Aaron, “I’m not completely sure what I mean, the nature of color deserves some thought. Start with what you know.”
The light in this classroom is florescent. It makes the students appear jaundiced and raccoon-eyed. The tables at which they’re clustered are a white dirtied by pencil dust and fingerprints. In the center of the room, a large garbage can catches a slow drip from the ceiling. Because the intake vent for this classroom is located in an alleyway next to a gas station, the air inside smells vaguely of petroleum. Nobody wants to be in this room.
But they’re willing to discuss the refraction of light and the properties of the human eye and the inability of most mammals to see color and to listen when she says, “Suppose color’s a matter of perception and the world is really a place of whites and blacks and grays, like it is in the dark, like it is to many animals, and that other colors exist only in our brains.”
Lia spends time on such topics because she’s learned that if one is willing to look at the world from a fresh perspective, one can be changed forever.
She remembers an episode of The West Wing in which a delegation of mapmakers petitions the White House to reconsider standard depictions of Earth. To make their point, they present the continents as they actually are, in their true dimensions, which aren’t accurately reflected on most maps. They then flip the whole thing upside down and ask the simplest of questions: In a universe as vast as ours, with no real up or down, top or bottom, who decides that the earth should be viewed as we view it? Northerners, presumably.
Taping an upside-down map of the world to the white board, Lia now asks her students this very question.
“Try to think of the planet from this new perspective,” she tells them. “And ask yourselves why that’s so hard to do.”
As Lia and her students consider the world’s paradigms, she finds herself feeding a beautiful bonfire on a sand bar that is quickly being consumed by the tide. She doesn’t know what will happen when the sea submerges the fire, but she’s about to find out.
To her students, she says, “Now I want you, in your groups, to come up with a definition of ‘the present.’”
They’ve just started reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Lia has alarmed them a little with her attitude towards its author, Mr. Vonnegut. She appears to love him. “Wait until you’ve finished the book,” she says, “and then you’ll understand.”
Rereading the novel has made Lia newly aware of the passage of time. She used to have skin like a Dresden doll. Now, her face is edged in sunspots, and one of her pinkish moles has risen into a dome. So why does she continue to think of herself as a younger woman, even when she sees evidence several times a day to the contrary? How is she going to feel when she’s old? Will her mirrors make her leap with surprise?
She often thinks about Billy Pilgrim, the boy in Mr. Vonnegut’s book, who comes to be convinced by aliens that there’s a fourth dimension in which time ceases to be relevant and one is, simultaneously, newborn and corpse and everything in between … and that it is up to each of us to visit ourselves in the moments we like best, or to escape from those we like least. Everything is already decided. Everything’s already happened. Which makes struggle unnecessary. Even foolish.
Lia doesn’t believe this alien philosophy. Like Billy Pilgrim before his conversion, she believes in free will. She believes there’s a way to control almost everything, even if she herself doesn’t always know how. She believes in the struggle, although she is sometimes the first to give in, and even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t like the idea that everything’s already etched in stone. If that were true, she’d have to believe that the one holding the chisel was either a madman or a monster. And she doesn’t.
But Billy’s glad to embrace such ideas because he’s learned that everything hurts less if he believes it’s all beyond his control. If he looks away from what’s disturbing and focuses instead on something pleasant.
She thinks about such things as her students are discussing the nature of time.
“The present is where we are at the moment, in between the past and the future,” says a girl named Stephanie who has a Hello Kitty handbag and a Happy Bunny journal.
On the board, Lia draws a horizontal line with an arrowhead at either end. At the left arrowhead, she writes “past.” At the right arrowhead, she writes “future.” In the middle, she makes a circle on the line and writes “present.”
A boy named Jason, distinguished from the other Jasons in the school by his bottle-blue hair, says, “The circle needs to keep moving into the future constantly or it’ll become the past.”
“Or it’s fixed and everything else is moving,” Stephanie says.
“Either way,” Jason says, “the present is almost too small to measure. Like a split atom.”
The class talks about this for a little while, whether the present even exists at all or is simply where the past and future abut.
Lia waits for them to question the left arrowhead on the white board, the one leading into the past, signifying eternity, but they don’t. She might raise the question but for Caleb, the pale young man lurking in her peripheral vision. God has already given Caleb all the answers that matter. If Lia raises the question of the origins of the world, of people, he’ll hijack this discussion. Lia’s often a fan of discussion-hijackers. But not this time. Not this student.
“We’ll be talking about perception and time as we read Mr. Vonnegut’s book,” she says, erasing the line from the white board. "Reality, too.” She dusts off her hands. “So I’d like you now, in your groups, to list all the different types of reality you’ve experienced in your lives.”
Some of the students want more direction, but Lia believes in giving just enough to get them started. That way they end up all over the place instead of right at her heel. “Begin with what you know,” she says, “and go from there.”
Lia Wayne is forty-two years old. She’s been teaching for only four years. This is her fifth. She had reasons for starting late. In the past couple of weeks, she’s considered several reasons for quitting early. One of them involves white worms falling through thin air.
The students, looking at her, know nothing of the white worms beyond the fact that one of them appeared on Lia’s arm in class one day. It seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. As she stands before them now, she seems to be buzzing slightly. They attribute this to her passion for Mr. Vonnegut. They are only partly right.
As the students are working, Lia finds a bag of Popsicle sticks hidden in her son’s room. She knows without asking that he has kept them so no one will be able to steal his DNA and clone him. The question is: does she laugh at this, or cry?
Five minutes later, Lia wipes her eyes and begins to construct a master list of realities with her students. In the end, it includes physical existence, emotions, dreams, faith, fantasies and imagination, hallucinations (at least one student has had a high fever, another admits to using drugs), memories, theories, hopes, and illusion.
“What about music?” says a guitarist named Stephen whose left hand has elongated fingers because he plays a ’56 Les Paul with a wide neck.
“If music counts, dance counts,” says Sarah, a leggy girl who often wears her pointe shoes to class.
There’s a discussion about art and reality, and the students agree that art can go on the list. And they’re all prepared to admit that in almost any given day, they experience nearly all of the realities on the list, except for, perhaps, hallucination (which draws a snort from the boy who has confessed to using drugs).
“Then this homework assignment should be easy for you,” she says as she hands it out. “I want you to keep a log of every time you migrate from one kind of reality to another. For at least one full day.” When everyone has a copy, she says, “Since Billy Pilgrim experiences so many types of reality, I hope this exercise will help you to become more engaged in the novel.”
Because Lia hasn’t conducted this experiment before, she’s decided to do it along with her students.
She doesn’t know that doing so will save her.
This is the story of where she goes.
Wolk is the author of the adult novel Those Who Favor Fire (Random House, 1999). For reviews, please visit the Etc. page.
She is also the author of the as yet unpublished winner of the Hackney Award, Forgiving Billy Pilgrim. Here is the first chapter:
“The honesty of Wolf Hollow will just about shred your heart, but Annabelle’s courage and compassion will restore it to you, fuller than before. This book matters.” —Sara Pennypacker, New York Times bestselling author of Pax
“An evocative setting, memorable characters, a searing story: Wolf Hollow has stayed with me long after I closed the book. It has the feel of an instant classic.” —Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medalist and New York Times bestselling author
"Wrenching and true. . . . comparisons to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird will abound. But Wolk gives us her own story—one full of grace and stark, brutal beauty." —The New York Times Book Review
"This exquisite debut confronts injustice and doesn't flinch." —People
"[A] powerful debut . . . beautifully written." —The Wall Street Journal
"Nuanced and nerve-wracking . . . [Wolk's] story is finely crafted, haunting, and unlikely to be forgotten." —Shelf Awareness
★ “Trusting its readers implicitly with its moral complexity, Wolk’s novel stuns.” —Kirkus, starred review
★ "The narrative is powerful, complex, and lifelike . . . a truly moving debut.” —School Library Journal, starred review
★ "Wolk movingly expresses Annabelle’s loss of innocence through the honest, clear voice of her protagonist.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
★ "Perfectly pitched to be used in classrooms in conjunction with To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Booklist, starred review
★ "The tension builds and never lets up." —The Horn Book, starred review
★ An NPR Best Book of the Year
★ A Booklist Best Book of the Year
★ An Entertainment Weekly Best Middle Grade Book of the Year
★ A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
★ A Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year
★ A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
★ A Wall Street Journal Best Children's Book of the Year
★ An ALA Notable Children's Book
"Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift on a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow’s only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.
"Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn’t until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.
"Vivid and heart wrenching, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea is a gorgeously crafted and tensely paced tale that explores questions of identity, belonging, and the true meaning of family."