This was my third Saundra Mitchell novel, and I have to say that, once again, I continue to be impressed by her gorgeous prose and her deeply introspective narrative that mark her stories so distinctly. Set against an eery, supernatural backdrop, the story of Mistwalker is ultimately a very human one about two people dealing with the devastating consequences of their seemingly inconsequential decisions; about two people dealing with their grief, loss, and their search for identity in very different ways. It’s a dark fairytale and there’s plenty of creepy and weird, but instead of the magical, mystical element being the core of this book, Saundra uses it as a vehicle to focus on and highlight the deeper emotional and personal development of her characters. It’s a gorgeous story of healing, forgiveness, sacrifice, love, consequences, of surviving, and living… that’s also shiver-inducingly “other.”
Willa. Stubborn, gutsy, self-assured, hard-working and a little rough around the edges, Willa Dixon’s got life post-high school all planned out – fishing and her boyfriend Seth. But when her younger brother Levi is murdered, it indirectly being her fault, her entire world capsizes and causing her to take a new look her dreams, her life, her family and herself.
The most recent in a long line of Dixon’s who’ve made their livelihood fishing off the coast of Broken Tooth, Maine, Willa has seawater in her blood. Family is immensely important to her, her family history is important to her, and she plans on continuing that legacy — spending her life on the ocean because there is nowhere else she’d rather be. Typically, you read stories of teens trying to escape their family history, their family’s expectations or the family business, but in this instance I love how Willa wholeheartedly embraces it. She wants this life and she wants it badly… to the point where she’d almost be lost without it. But the unwitting part she played in her brother’s murder threatens her dreams of fishing alongside her dad. So much of her identity is wrapped up in the sea — it’s her refuge — and faced with the possibility of losing it, she’s floundering.
Willa’s also plagued by overwhelming guilt and she’s grieving for a brother who was also her friend. Without Levi to hold them all together, her family is falling apart; all the loose threads of her life that came undone with Levi’s death are unraveling and she doesn’t know how to mend them. With the exception of her best friend Bailey, she’s mostly dealing with her grief and guilt alone. Her wonderings, observations, epiphanies, and honesty as she stews in and works through her issues just make her very sympathetic and real character. Willa has made mistakes, and now she’s trying to atone for them, trying to survive them, and trying to figure out how life works now that she’s made them. It’s honest and raw and heart-wrenching and thought-provoking.
Grey. Imprisoned by a magic that will grant him almost any wish except the one thing he desires most, the Grey Man must collect one thousand souls to earn his freedom… or ensnare another to take his place. While I loved Willa, Grey became my favorite character from the very first moment he’s introduced. And why? Because he’s both the sympathetic protagonist and the somewhat sinister antagonist all at the same time. He is fascinating. For all that he is consumed by his obsession to be rid of the curse, he wars with himself from fully succumbing to what the magic tempts him to become. He’s clinging to the last raggedy edges of his humanity, and what will he do when Willa proves to be a tougher challenge than he anticipated — his freedom dangling just out of reach?
I love Grey’s voice. Brutally honest, yet poetic. Bleak, yet darkly romantic. His yearning and loneliness, his regret and resignation, his grief and despair, his darker desires and his anger, his restraint and his hopefulness — it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and horrifying. Those intriguing shades of gray are what make a character interesting to me; those little contradictions and polarizing emotions, both on-page and evoked, that grab my attention and cause me to press my nose a little closer to the page.
Story. I’ve already talked a bit about the story, but Saundra’s decision to tell this story using both Willa and Grey as narrators works effectively as the deterioration of Willa’s situation combined with Grey’s mounting desperation results in wonderfully slow, but consistent, build of tension that completely sucked me in and left me refreshingly uncertain as to how this story would resolve for both of them. And I must say the conclusion pleasantly surprised me in several ways.
Overall. Haunting and lovely, Saundra Mitchell’s Mistwalker is a dark fairytale about healing, forgiveness, and self-discovery that bewitches and delights.
P.S. – I actually live in Maine. About 5 hours south of where Willa would live in the book, but still “creepy Maine” is another reason I was excited about reading Mistwalker. Anyway, here’s a few photos I’ve taken since we’ve moved to entice you even more… Maine is a gorgeous, gorgeous place and Saundra describes it gorgeously. 😉
Clockwise from top left: View from Doubling Point Lighthouse, Pemaquid Point Light, and Portland Head Light