A few months ago I predicted on my non-NYPL blog that Paper Towns (2008) would be receiving a nod from the Printz committee at the 2009 awards ceremony. Failing that, I was certain that after nabbing a National Book Award, What I Saw and How I Lied (2008) would take a Printz award/honor.
You can therefore imagine my surprise when it was neither of my predicted titles but Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road* (2008**) that won the 2009 Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. Being a fan of Marchetta's previous novels Looking for Alibrandi (1992) and especially Saving Francesca (2005) you can also imagine my embarrassment upon realizing one of my favorite authors had published a new book without my realizing it.
The only solution, of course, was to immediately procure a copy from the library and read it as soon as possible.
Jellicoe Road is not a novel with one protagonist. Rather, it is one with many. The story starts on the Jellicoe Road with a tragic accident that will have far reaching repercussions for each character in the novel. Then, abruptly, the story starts again twenty-two years later at the Jellicoe School--the boarding school located farther down the same road--when Taylor Markham is chosen to lead the school's faction in a secret territory war that has spanned a generation between the school boarders, the Townies, and the Cadets.
The Jellicoe School is the only real home Taylor has ever known. She has been at the school since she was eleven, when her mother abandoned her on Jellicoe Road and Hannah drove by to pick Taylor up and take her to the school. Now seventeen, Taylor is in many ways still a young girl afraid of being abandoned by those she loves. Which is why, at the start of the story, Taylor balks at the authority thrust upon her and the relationships it will necessitate. Leading the Jellicoe School through the territory wars is bad enough, but being in charge of an entire dorm of students seems truly unbearable. Taylor's resolve to live a life apart is tested, and in many ways broken, with the efforts of well-meaning friends and the appearance of Jonah Griggs--the one person Taylor never expected to see, or need, ever again.
As the territory wars escalate, Taylor's life is thrown into disarray with the sudden disappearance of Hannah--the only adult Taylor would come close to calling family. With Hannah gone, Taylor begins reading Hannah's unfinished novel for lack of anything else to cling to. Marchetta weaves Taylor's story and the events of Hannah's novel and even the histories of other characters together to create one haunting narrative where, the more Taylor reads, the more it feels like she is looking not at fictitious characters but at people she has known her entire life.
While trying to understand Hannah's sudden absence, Taylor also starts to understand herself. Eventually she realizes that living life at a distance offers no protection from abandonment and provides even fewer options to heal scars from past betrayals.
The novel starts with rapid fire narration as Taylor throws out events and names at the reader without any frame of reference. Later in the story the importance of the Cadet, the Hermit, and the Brigadier becomes painfully obvious. But in the first pages the narrative comes closer to painfully confusing and unwieldy. By the end of my reading I had a marker at almost every page to indicated important points and favorite passages. However, if you can roll with the uncertainty, you will be rewarded. At a little over four hundred pages, Marchetta still creates a page-turner that moves quickly and weaves together every single narrative thread by the final page.
Because Taylor is not forthcoming with explanations, the novel reads like a mystery (fitting since my two Printz Award predictions were also mysteries of sorts). However a good portion of the story is also simply about friendship and love. Taylor expects neither from her time on the Jellicoe Road even though they might be exactly what she was supposed to find there all along. Marchetta blends moments of humor and gravitas in her unique prose style to create another really great read.
* Jellicoe Road was actually originally published, I assume in Marchetta's native Australia, with the title On the Jellicoe Road. For various reasons, upon finishing the novel, I feel that this title is superior to the American edition's shortened version.
** The book was originally published, again I assume in Australia, in 2006.
*** In addition to the original title being superior, in terms of relevance to the story, the original cover art is also much more apt. (Although I just realized the US cover has a Poppy on it which I will grudgingly admit is actually pretty relevant to the story. It also makes it impossible to pick a cover to feature here so, readers, you get both.)