The Braid
  • The Braid
  • The Braid

The Braid

by Helen Frost

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Two sisters, Jeannie and Sarah, tell their separate yet tightly interwoven stories in alternating narrative poems. Each sister - Jeannie, who leaves Scotland during the Highland Clearances with her father, mother, and the younger children, and Sarah, who hides so she can stay behind with her grandmother - carries a length of the other's hair braided with her own. The…  See more details below


Two sisters, Jeannie and Sarah, tell their separate yet tightly interwoven stories in alternating narrative poems. Each sister - Jeannie, who leaves Scotland during the Highland Clearances with her father, mother, and the younger children, and Sarah, who hides so she can stay behind with her grandmother - carries a length of the other's hair braided with her own. The braid binds them together when they are worlds apart and reminds them of who they used to be before they were evicted from the Western Isles, where their family had lived for many generations.

The award-winning poet Helen Frost eloquently twists strand over strand of language, braiding the words at the edges of the poems to bring new poetic forms to life while intertwining the destinies of two young girls and the people who cross their paths in this unforgettable novel. An author's note describes the inventive poetic form in detail.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Frost's (Spinning Through the Universe) ingeniously structured novel in verse about a Scottish family may be set in 1850, but its themes will resonant with today's teens. The events unfold through the alternating perspectives of sisters Sarah, the oldest of four, whose strength and agility with tools help her father ("just like a lad," says he), and Jeannie, the comely one with golden curls. Readers quickly learn that the British landlords are forcing out the residents of Scotland's Western Isle of Barra. The night before the family's planned departure for Canada, Sarah braids together her hair with Jeannie's, takes one half of the braid for herself and leaves the other for her sister. While 14-year-old Jeannie departs with her parents and two younger siblings by boat, 15-year-old Sarah hides out in order to stay with their grandmother and return with the woman to Mingulay, the small island south of Barra where their grandfather is buried. The braid not only symbolizes the bond between the sisters ("You'll always long for Jeannie, Aunt Mari says [to Sarah]. No matter how far/ away she is, you may know when something hard is happening to her"), but also nods to Frost's form here, the Celtic knot, which she employs seamlessly. This brief, memorable book spans two years, several deaths, first love and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, while also conveying the resolve of one family to survive and to preserve hope. Ages 12-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature - Laura Ruttig
Amazing, lyrical, and fascinating, Frost's work is astonishing in both its design and execution. Written in verse with alternating chapters from two different narrators, Frost tells the story of sisters born in Ireland in the 19th century on the Isle of Barra. Hunger leads to their family's being ordered to leave the Isle by the bailiff; Sarah, the elder sister, chooses to stay with their grandmother in Ireland, traveling to another island Mingulay. Jeannie leaves with the rest of the family on a ship for Canada. Despite an incredible use of form, neither story becomes in the least bit stilted, flowing easily through the events of each child's life over a roughly three-year period. In her endnote, Frost reveals that she wrote these long narrative poems to be braided vertically, so that the last word of each line in each of Sarah's chapters connects to the first word of each line in the following chapter from Jeannie. Furthermore, the long narrative poems are structured such that each line has the same number of syllables as each girl's age, growing almost imperceptibly as the novel progresses. The symmetry Frost uses is simply breathtaking, more so for being nearly unnoticeable without close examination. Her use of imagery and depiction of the girls' lives elevate this work to the level of art.
Frost weaves a story of two teenaged sisters parted by circumstances in the mid-1800s. Jeannie leaves with the family for Canada while Sarah remains with their grandmother in Scotland. Each carries a braid made from their interwoven hair. After losing her father and two siblings to cholera during the voyage, Jeannie finds unimagined hardship in Cape Breton. She discovers previously unknown strength and resolve when she is forced to provide for what remains of her family in a place totally foreign to them. Meanwhile her sister encounters troubles of the heart. Although she is surrounded by a loving extended family in Scotland, Sarah misses her parents and siblings. Her pain is eased by the blossoming love of a local fisherman; however, that brings complications of a different sort. Throughout their difficulties, each sister finds the braid a source of comfort and a reminder of their bond. The author uses a less obvious poetic form than she did in Keesha's House (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003/VOYA April 2003), and adds endnotes to explain the forms. Narrative poems in two alternating voices are then linked by praise poems that laud something named in the narrative poems. She also subtly uses syllabic count in the lines of the sisters' narratives to reflect their respective ages. The result is a lyrical feeling that transports the reader and prevents the transitions in the story between Canada and Scotland from being too jarring. Poetry, adventure, romance, historical fiction-this book has something for every reader. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High,defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2006, Farrar Straus Giroux, 112p., $16. Ages 11 to 18.
—Debbie Clifford
KLIATT - Janis Flint-Ferguson
Helen Frost's novel in poetry form shares the lives of fictional sisters living in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1850, when people were evicted from the islands and sent to live in Scotland, in Canada and in the United States. Sisters Sarah and Jeannie braid their hair together and then cut off the braid so that each may take a braid to remind them of the other. Jeannie leaves with her mother, father and younger siblings as they immigrate to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It is a tragic journey and once in Canada, she and her family have no one on whom to rely. Jeannie finds her own strength and identity as she works for food and shelter. Sarah remains with her elderly grandmother, leaving one island for another, rocky one in the Hebrides chain. There she cares for her grandmother and falls in love with rough Murdo Campbell, who is their main source of supplies and news as he ferries his boat between the islands. They exchange their vow to marry and share one night together before he is evicted and physically forced to sail to Canada. Left with a child, Sarah continues to make a life for herself, hoping that one day she will rejoin her family and Murdo. The novel is written in an intertwining style, which Frost explains in her notes to the reader. While reminiscent of Longfellow's "Evangeline," the historical context will not be familiar to American students, but nonetheless gives voice to the tragic circumstances that populated Nova Scotia, Canada.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Teenage sisters Jeannie and Sarah are separated when the Highland Clearances of the 1850s tear their family away from the only home they've known. Jeannie sails to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with their parents and younger siblings to start a new life, while Sarah decides to remain in Scotland with their grandmother. In an age when distance and illiteracy prohibit communication, the girls remain connected solely by pieces of a braid intertwined with one another's hair. Though seemingly a distant reality from that of today's teens, this gem of a book ultimately tackles age-old issues of teen pregnancy, death, poverty, and first love in a timeless manner. Frost tells the compelling story using a formal structure consisting of narrative poems in alternating voices, praise poems, and line lengths based on syllabic count. While the inventive form is accomplished and impressive, it's the easy flow of the verse and its emotional impact that will carry even reluctant readers into the windswept landscape and the hardships and dreams of these two girls.-Jill Heritage Maza, Greenwich High School, CT Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Telling of the struggle and adventures of two teenage sisters, one in Nova Scotia, the other on the Isle of Barra in the 1850s, this is also an adventure in language. Told in narrative poems in the alternating voices of the sisters (their ages reflected in the number of syllables in each line), the poems are braided together much as the sisters braid a lock of each other's hair into their own. Between the narrative poems is an ode, which praises something in the previous narrative. Each praise poem begins with the last line of the last praise poem. Thus the strands of the two narratives and the praise poem form a "braid." Forced to leave their native island, the family flees to Canada, but Sarah remains at home, falls in love and worries about the man she loves when he unexpectedly must also go to Canada. Jeannie helps her mother and younger siblings (the father and other siblings died during the voyage) scrape together a living in the new country and finds resources in which to cobble a shelter for them to inhabit. Readers will hold their breaths waiting to discover what happens to the sisters while their verbal reservoirs will be restocked with incredible imagery, rich vocabulary and powerful storytelling. (Historical fiction/poetry. 12-15)

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.72(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.63(d)
730L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

From The Braid

. . . The

bay was still. Moonlight on the water made a path from our

Scottish sea to –where? Where, I wonder, will we all be eating

supper in two months’ time? One year? I linked arms with Sarah,

the way we’ve done since we were small, sitting and watching on

that rock. Then we dipped our hands into the sea and touched our

tongues to the seawater, each of us swallowing a bit.

Canada seemed far away, the salty sea so close, our

journey not yet started. We walked back home. Hush now, Sarah said,

they’ll be asleep. So they were, but we were wide awake when

we went to our bed. I took the hairbrush from the wooden

bench, and sat by Sarah, brushing out her long thick hair. Oh,

Jeannie . . . Sarah whispered. I can’t . . . She drew in her breath. Then . . .

Goodnight. (Or did she say goodbye?) She loosened my braids, held

them in her hand, and brushed my hair so hard – I should have known.

But how could I? Then Sarah braided my hair with her own,

close and tight, so our heads were touching. We started laughing.

Will you girls go to sleep? It’s near morning! Father called. Like two

cats curled together, we slept that night. Or – did Sarah sleep?

She must have stayed awake until I slept. She must have had

her sewing scissors tucked into her pocket. Sarah knew

where she was going. I woke to no warm place beside me.

She’d cut the braid close to our heads, tucked half into my hand –


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