book review: Vodnik
author: Bryce Moore
date: Tu Books, 2012
main character: Tomáŝ
When Tomáŝ was six, something happened that caused his family to leave Slovakia for the US. Ten years later, their house burns down and his parents decide that it’s time to return. His parents have no idea what’s waiting for Tomáŝ in Slovakia, but they’ll soon find out.
First, there’s the racism he faces because he’s Roma that he didn’t face in the US. Tomáŝ is unprepared for such personal reactions to this part of his identity and his responses are weak and uncertain.
Then, there are the tricksters; the vodnik and other creatures from Slovak folklore who want Tomáŝ. Tomáŝ’s discoveries about and interactions with the Vodnik are the main storyline and it’s through these interactions that the story progresses and that we learn Tomáŝ’s strengths.
Vodnik is the story of Tomáŝ overcoming his fears, facing his demons and embracing his own powers. Moore builds suspense as we try to figure out what’s going on with Tomáŝ, what’s in his past and how it’s affecting his future. There is death, fire, violence and there are mysterious beings of unknown power but readers feel a safety net in his writing that make it pleasurable to read to the end. Moore walks a fine balance between fear and safety when writing for younger teens, but he managers quite well. Creating plausible situations and likable characters helps a lot. While we have plenty of reason to feel sorry for Tomáŝ-he’s in a country he doesn’t want to be in, can’t speak the language, faces racist bullies regularly and someone wants to kill him- we don’t because he has this sense of self, this wit and charm that don’t allow us to feel sorry for him.
“This was worse than being bullied for my scar. The troubles I’d had were confined to school. I might see some of the jerks at the mall or the movies, but they usually left me alone then - there were other people around. Plus, these people would be sued sideways back in the States. Wouldn’t they? I hated having all those eyes on me, all of them untrusting. All of them guarded. Now that I was noticing it, it seemed everyone was watching me. Draco and Gollum- were they making fun of us? Was their fat friend mimicking me by rubbing his arm, or did he just have an itch? (Come to think of it, he looked kinda like Jabba the Hutt. Not quite Return of the Jedi Jabba, but definitely a New Hope deleted scene candidate: wormy, large, and hairless.) That couple leaving the ice cream parlor-was it because of us? Had we ruined their afternoon? I’d had nightmares better than this. ”
While Tomáŝ reactions to the racism he felt seemed genuine, the author seemed uncertain in developing it the storyline. At one point, he used Tomáŝ’s cousin, a Roma, to say that the Roma deserved the treatment they received. This topic seems to be as new to the author as to his character.
I can’t say I was a fan of the cover. I think it’s the graininess of the image and the look on the boy’s face that made me unsure of what I might be getting into. Don’t let the cover stop you from reading this wonderful story! The story is based in Slovak folklore and the town and the castle really do exist.