It's been eleven years since Michael Bedard graced the literary scene with a young adult novel. Eleven years though certainly not silent ones for one of our finest writers for children. Bedard has offered us in the last decade extraordinary picture book biographies of writers Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather, glimpses into the imaginative inner lives of the BrontT children and a child's eye view of those amazing Toronto sculptors, Loring and Wyle, best known as "The Girls". But it has been eleven years since we've had a novel. Redwork, published in 1990, won the Governor General's Award and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children. And if Redwork was a one fine piece of children's literary fiction, what then can one say of Stained Glass?
Perhaps, to begin with, that it's a truly great novel. That it's probably the single most important work of fantasy fiction to grace the Canadian children's literary scene at least since Redwork, and one of the finest pieces of fiction that has been published this year. Bedard is a masterful craftsman and this is a truly fantastical work of fiction. Like his delicately wrought picture books, Stained Glass is stunning in its fine details, in the care with which each word and sentence has been laid down. But what is so amazing about Stained Glass is that the reader has a chance to share the experience of the fantasy on the same level as the writer¨we're co-conspirators in this incredible fiction, watching what happens from above as it were, rather than participating with the characters in the adventure that is unfolded before us. And that is extraordinary.
Children's fantasy literature is full of amazing world-builders¨Garth Nix's Old Kingdom where magic and the dead walk side-by-side; Philip Pullman's multi-layered world beyond worlds that act as a backdrop for his contemporary reenactment of Paradise Lost; Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea; Lewis's Narnia; Tolkien's Middle Earth. You won't find any of that grand world-building going on in Stained Glass though it's nonetheless replete with fantastical discoveries. And that's part of what again makes Stained Glass so unique¨the fact that the fantasy takes place on a small scale¨in a small Canadian city in the course, of a single day¨a scale that nevertheless leaves you breathless by the time you close the book.
Charles Endicott should be at his weekly piano lesson but he's not. He's been skipping his lessons for weeks now, hiding out in Old St. Bart's church. Nobody would think of looking for Charles at St. Bart's and there's no one there who knows him anyway except a handful of homeless people, Father Leone, the pastor, and George Berkeley, the caretaker. Charles is caught up in his own thoughts when one of the church's old stained glass windows breaks; so caught up, in fact, that he doesn't even take note of a girl lying on the bench, just below the window who is now covered by the broken shards of the window. At least he think she must have been there all this time. He goes to her aid only to discover that she doesn't know her name, can't tell him anything about herself and seems utterly lost. And so begins Charles' journey. At the same time, George Berkeley begins a journey of his own¨he sets out to repair the window that he's broken and, in so doing, to regain that part of himself and his craft as a stained glass artist that has been lost since the tragic death of his wife. And there's the girl¨we'll soon find out her name is Ambriel¨who wants nothing more than to find her way back home, if only she could remember where home was.
As intricately connected as are the pieces of the stained glass window that is the novel's focus, Bedard weaves us in and out of the lives of Charles, George and Ambriel, leading us through a landscape of memories, hopes, wishes and dreams. It's as much a story about Charles' coming to terms with the death of his father as it is a novel about discovering just who Ambriel is; it's a book that searches out ways of living our lives in the present under the shadows of our past. As well as these three interconnected stories, there are delicious pilgrimages back in time¨anecdotes about the origins of stained glass, journeys to the Orient with explorers, historical glimpses into the life of a small city that has lost sight of its roots in the contemporary world. And as you might expect with a novel called after a wonderful art form, Stained Glass is rich with striking visual images. You will never be able to wander through a city street again without noticing bits and pieces of glass that litter the road.
Like that rare bit of blue glass that Charles finds in the closing moments of the novel, Stained Glass will find readers picking it up again and again to wonder at its gentle loveliness, marvel at its craftsmanship and be dazzled by the depths that it explores. Stained Glass is a sophisticated fantasy adventure that is truly one of the most remarkable books to have been published this year.