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 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.

The Braid is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374300715
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/03/2006
Pages: 110
Sales rank: 235,716
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

About the Author

Helen Frost is the author of several books for young people, including Hidden, Diamond Willow, Salt, Crossing Stones, Room 214: A Year in Poems, and Keesha’s House, which was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book.

Read an Excerpt

The Braid

By Helen Frost

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Helen Frost
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9633-8


    The Mussel Bailiff
    Isle of Barra, Scotland, 1850

    All of us! Father, Mother, Jeannie, and the wee ones — Willie,
    Margaret, and Flora — Grandma Peggy, and myself. We're all
    to be evicted come next Monday. Our crime? Nothing more than
    hunger: I went with Mother when the tide was out, to gather
    mussels for our supper. We filled our basket. Mother strapped it
    to her back. We could hear, from down the glen, Old Donald playing
    on his pipes, a cheerful tune that Mother hummed as we walked home.
    I was happy. We'd have more than seaweed in our soup that night.
    Then comes the mussel bailiff, so high and mighty, like he thinks
    he is the Duke himself! Him and his dogs, all snarling at us —
    and he takes out his knife and cuts the straps from our basket, so
    it falls from Mother's shoulders to the mud. He grinds our mussels
    underfoot until the shells are just blue specks, then tells us we're
    to leave our home before this week is out. Mussels in that bay,
    we're told, are bait for English fishermen, not food for Scottish
    children like ourselves. If they let one family take supper
    from the bay, soon everyone, they say, will be taking all the
    mussels they can eat. And what, I think, would be so wrong with that?
    But I know better than to speak such thoughts. I hold my tongue.
    A ship sits in Lochboisdale now, due to sail to Canada
    next Tuesday. Father has determined we'll all make the journey,
    and he's gone to try to sell his tools, hoping only that they'll
    bring enough to pay our passage. It troubles me: how will we
    build a house in Canada without them? A table. Benches.
    Willie's cradle. Grandma's loom. A new bed for me and Jeannie.
    I sit outside with Grandma, knitting. We're trying to be good.
    Grandma frowns and clicks her needles like she's telling them
    the thoughts she tries to silence. She's in no mood for talking. But
    I have so many questions. The day we'll leave is coming close.
    Who else can I ask? I lean on Grandma's shoulder: How long will
    the journey be? How big is the ship? Will there be dogs and cats
    in Canada?
As I expect, she shushes me. She says she
    has no answers. I grow silent, breathing in the smell of her
    wool shawl, the smell of peat smoke and the sea, the sour smell where
    Willie spat up on her shoulder after breakfast. At last she
    speaks: Child, my heart is breaking, but I'll not be going with you.
    I'll take my weaving from the loom and go back to Mingulay
    where I was born. My William's buried in the graveyard there, and
    some days I expect that I may well be there beside him soon.

    Then she takes my head into her hands and weeps. When she sees tears
    on my face, she wipes them with her fingers, soft and rough at once.
    I know she wants to hold me here. I know too that she'll not try.
    She gathers up her tangled wool, takes her basket back inside.


    Such beauty in the world, such strength
    in all the creatures. Each mussel
    somehow finds a rock to cling to,
    opening when washed by water,
    closing when the tide goes out. Shells
    protect the living creature — blue,
    black-purple, closed upon the rock,
    white inside, shining like the sun.

    The Braid
    Isle of Barra

    Willie fussed, and wouldn't go to sleep. It was late, we were
    all packed, ready for the journey. Sarah held him tighter
    than she usually does. She looked long at his face and then she
    gathered him up, kissed his nose, wrapped her shawl around him, pulled
    it — pulled Willie — close. She looked at Flora, then at Margaret,
    playing on the floor with the wee rag doll we made for her.
    Home, Sarah must have thought. Remember this. Later that same
    night — we could not sleep — we walked together to the cove. Father
    thinks that Sarah must have told me then. She did not. None of
    us — not even I — knew what she was planning. Sarah was
    so quiet. She didn't laugh when an otter opened a
    mussel with a rock and ate it and I made my wee joke:
    We'll tell the bailiff, and he'll send you to Canada. 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,
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 —
    You / me / sisters / always.
        Now we're in the boat, and leaving;
    Mingulay is but a distant blur. We've left without her —
    and I want to dive into the sea and swim back home. But
    soon we will be out too far to see the hills where Sarah's
    tears are no doubt falling like my own. I squeeze my right hand
    once, around the braid in my pocket. Father says, Be strong.
    Try to be as helpful as you can. Your mother needs you.

    Inside, I'm still crying. I'll hold Margaret's hand, I say.


    White, shining in the sun, Grandma's
    hair winds round her head, a braid, a
    crown. Margaret's hair, black and fine,
    damp on her cheek in fretful sleep.
    Flora's and Jeannie's golden curls,
    Sarah's red-brown braid — Mother's strong
    hands, teasing out the tangles as
    she sings into her children's ears.

    After Three Days
    Isle of Barra

    Were they angry? Could they understand how this place holds me, so
    tight I could not live away from it? Nor could I leave Grandma.
    She scolded, but she was pleased when, after three days, my hunger
    pulled me back here. That first day, I hid and watched their boat go out —
    Margaret kneeling at the bow, arms spread like a bird. Behind
    her, Mother, strong and watchful, one hand upon her shoulder, the
    same way she watched me when I was four. Flora sat straight beside
    Father. Jeannie held Willie. No doubt she sang to him. Boxes
    of food for the journey, and two other men — the fishing boat
    was full. A man named Ranald took them to Lochboisdale. He has
    a younger brother going to Canada by choice. Jeannie
    joked: He should go in place of one of us — perhaps now she thinks
    the joke has turned out true.
        Grandma tells me about Mingulay:
    Our life will not be easy. We'll have fish and birds and eggs to
    eat; I have no fear of starving. But winters can be long — and
    Sarah, only twenty families live there. You'll be lonesome
    on your own.
She looks hard at me. I'll have you, I say. She blinks.
    Our journey there is likely to be rough. Some say it's every
    bit as daunting as the trip to Canada ... Well, then.
We link
    our arms and walk down to the cove. Sarah's coming, too, Grandma
    says to Murdo Campbell, the young fisherman who's taking us.
    When he sees me, arm in arm with Grandma Peggy, clutching my
    wooden walking stick like it's my sister, I can't guess his thoughts.
    Oh, Sarah, don't you worry, now, Grandma Peggy says. (I know,
    then, I should be worried.) If anyone can land a boat or
    hold us steady in a stormy sea, it's Murdo Campbell. He's
    known for landing safely on Mingulay when others can't.
    own thoughts I keep to myself: Have I been foolish? Is this man
    laughing at me? I know my hair must look odd where I cut it;
    two patches on my skirt are coming loose; the past three nights I've
    slept out in the hills, with little food. Here, Murdo says, I
    had two old waterproofs at home, and brought them both. You'd think I
    knew that you were coming, Sarah.
I take the small one. He looks
    me up and down as if he's weighing me, then shifts his anchor,
    hands me a bailer — just in case — seats Grandma Peggy to his
    left, me to his right, and pushes us out to sea. Grandma folds
    her hands and bows her head. I look up at Murdo — his eyes calm,
    but merry, arms pulling hard on the oars. He looks at me. Aye,
    Sarah, they'll be glad, on Mingulay, to have a lively lass.
    Hand me that parcel, would you?
He opens it and offers me
    strong tea, still hot, and a hard-boiled egg. The birds are calling to
he says, pointing overhead: gulls circling, screeching. If they
    say anything, it's likely, You, there — where do you think you're going?


    The songs that enter children's ears
    carried across centuries of
    love, stay with them, bringing comfort,
    setting their feet dancing, coming
    back to them when their own children
    first look up and see them smiling
    or hear them weeping as they rock,
    strong boats upon a stormy sea.

    Going On Without Sarah
    Crossing the Atlantic

    So many people in so small a space. This ship is like
    Grandma's salted herring, people packed that tight, everyone
    hungry, cranky, some sick — a man died yesterday. I go
    out to the windy upper deck, taking Willie, leaving
    behind our crowded sleeping quarters down below. That air —
    the stench of it won't leave my hair and clothes. Last night I slept
    beside Margaret. She was thirsty, so I climbed over
    boxes, stepped around people, to the water by the life-
    boat. Even the water stinks. Father wonders if the ship
    has enough water to last the crossing. He cautions me:
    Jeannie, let's try not to drink too much too soon.
        Always, I'm
    thinking about Sarah. Is she thirsty? Did she go to
    Mingulay with Grandma? Or is she still hiding, frightened
    to come down from the hills, but hungry where she is, alone
    and cold at night? Sarah's strong and clever, and yet ... Oh, I'm
    lonesome for her. So is Mother — she bites her bottom lip and
    blinks back tears whenever someone mentions Sarah. And is
    everyone expecting me to take her place? I can't! I
    link arms with Flora, as Sarah used to do, but it's like
    Grandma trying to act like Mother. Why did Sarah leave
    us, Jeannie?
Flora asks. She's six years old — her question is
    my question, too, and only Sarah has the answer. Our
    thoughts of Sarah stretch from here to her like yarn unwinding.
    Know this, Jeannie, Mother says, as if she fears that yarn could snap,
    or trip someone — as if she can see my thoughts unravel —
    she's not lost to us. She'll always be our Sarah. But now,
    my Jeannie, you'll be the oldest and we'll count on you.
    man walks by and looks at us. Do I look older? Or is
    it my short hair he's staring at — is he laughing at me?
    I glare at him — he turns away.) Though I'm the oldest here,
    I'm not at all like Sarah! Compared to her, I'm useless.
    I've never stood by Father as he works, the way Sarah
    looked on, learning how to use his tools, or when to pull the
    anchor when we went out fishing. Just like a lad, he'd say,
    his eyes twinkling. As if a lad is better than a lass!

    Fold these dry clothes, will you, Jeannie? Mother, usually so
    calm, seems fretful. I study her. Is something wrong? I ask.
    Aye, Jeannie — it's Margaret. She's taken ill. The poor wee
    lass was up all night. She can't keep her food down. It worries
I jump up — I'll do this later, Mother! I go down
    to Margaret, hot and sweaty, asleep in Father's lap.
    They both look dreadful, and Father won't let me stay to help.
    Go back up to your mother. Now! he barks. My blood goes cold.


Excerpted from The Braid by Helen Frost. Copyright © 2006 Helen Frost. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Mussel Bailiff — Sarah,
The Braid — Jeannie,
After Three Days — Sarah,
Going On Without Sarah — Jeannie,
Stormy Evenings, Dancing — Sarah,
The Crossing — Jeannie,
Part of the Island — Sarah,
Alone Among These Giant Trees — Jeannie,
This Secret — Sarah,
Like This Black Spider — Jeannie,
Almost Like Sisters — Sarah,
Looking — Jeannie,
Around the Rocks — Sarah,
Shipbuilders — Jeannie,
You Will Want to Know — Sarah,
Have You Asked Permission? — Jeannie,
Such Immense Love — Sarah,
Over the Ruts and Bumps — Jeannie,
A Long Road, Steep and Rocky — Sarah,
Outside Our Door — Jeannie,
Not Speaking, Not Crying — Sarah,
House with Two Doors — Jeannie,
Not the First Time — Sarah,
The Working of the World — Jeannie,
My Questions Quiet Down — Sarah,
Walking Home — Jeannie,
The Brightest Star — Sarah,
Each Stalk Holds All the Sun — Jeannie,
We Will Be Sheltered — Sarah,
Notes on Form,
Notes on People, Language, and Places,
Also by Helen Frost,
About the Author,

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The Braid 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
kikotomo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Helen Frost does a wonderful job at telling the story of two sisters Sarah and Jeannie. Their family was forced to leave their home in Scotland - each girl traveling to a different location. Their hardships and happinesses are told in an invented formal structure, comprised of narrative poems (told in alternating voices - from Jeannie, then Sarah) and in between, short praise poems. A short, yet satisfying read.
sagustocox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Helen Frost's The Braid takes the reader on a simple family journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the strange land of Canada's Cape Breton in the Mid-1800s, while at the same time allowing us to follow the delicate yarn that stretches across the sea back to Scotland and Mingulay where the rest of the family remains. It was such an easy read, it only took me two short 15-minute Metro rides. I also didn't even notice the intricacy of the book, its narrative poems, and its praise poems. Frost's explanation of how the poems are interwoven together surprised me, perhaps because I was not looking for it or because it was so well done that I was not jarred out of the narrative by its style.***Spoiler Alert***Jeannie and Sarah are close sisters, who are separated by the Atlantic Ocean when Sarah makes a rash decision to hide away while the rest of the family boards a boat for Canada. Sarah stays behind in Scotland with her grandmother, while Jeannie boards the boat with her other sisters, brother, and parents.Jeannie must step up to the plate in the New World and help provide for her family by begging strangers for food and shelter. She finds strength within herself. Sarah meanwhile succumbs to her emotional weakness, but turns out to be a positive for her. Jeannie, on the other hand, then transitions from an "adult" back to her childlike self.***End Spoiler Alert***This is another Young Adult novel that I would never have read without the advice of some great book bloggers and my Word Nerd partner. Helen Frost is a very creative author and this book is a simple story told in a unique way. I would love to recommend this to anyone who likes Young Adult novels and to those who just want a breath of fresh air.
cablesclasses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story is told mostly in free verse narratives alternating from one sister¿s voice to the other¿s. The author uses syllabic measurements in each line to indicate the age of each girl. Interspersed between the narratives are praise poems. The author creatively uses the concept of braiding, mingling of ideas, as the basis for her poetic rules she follows. Easy to read, despite the intricate detail of poetic rules, the story unfolds about two sisters who must decide by themselves the pathway to follow. Heartwarming and poignant at the same time, the story reveals the severities of survival and death in new terrain. Older teens would better appreciate the intensity and complexities, but a younger reader will still understand the family situation.
blessingsfive on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting. Not only is the story about braids of hair, but the poetry is braided, also.
tasha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There is some poetry that reads complete with rhyme and a galloping rhythm, and then there is poetry like this book where the word play and skill is so skillfully done that it is almost invisible to the reader. This is the story of the intertwined lives of two sisters who are caught in the exodus from Scotland in the 1850s and escape into two very different lives that, like the poems that make up the story, are separate but braided together. Jeannie leaves Scotland for Canada with her mother, father, younger sisters and baby brother. Sarah stays with her grandmother, moving to an island in the Outer Hebrides. The two girls slowly grow up apart from one another and often unable to communicate in any way, though they remain connected by a braid of both their hair that each girl carries. The stories of the girls are in turn tragic, amazing and typical of so many people forced to leave their homelands. The skillfulness of Frost's poetry makes their situation all the more moving. Once readers finish the book and reach the explanation of the poetic forms, they will find themselves turning back through the poems and marveling at what happened right in front of them but they were unaware of. It is amazing skill to write this well, but to do it with a limitation of form that doesn't ever seem to limit the writing is simply remarkable.
Librarygirl66 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Two Scottish sisters, living on the western island of Barra in the 1850s, relate, in alternate voices and linked narrative poems, their experiences after their family is forcible evicted and separated with one sister accompanying their parents and younger siblings to Cape Breton, Canada, and the other staying behind with other family on the small island of Mingulay. 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.