Book Review: In ‘Sugaring Off’, a traumatized teenager finds strength in family and the forest

Gillian French’s fifth novel for young adults, “Sugaring Off,” is a love song set to hibernate in the New England backwaters. It’s as steeped in the sweet taste of the outdoors as maple syrup made in the protagonist’s backyard sugar house. The actual romance between two damaged teenagers isn’t that cute. Like the book itself, it starts as a tough but tender story. But shortly before the end, it veers off course to something darker.

Although French lives in Maine, she has set her book in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where 17-year-old Owl lives with her Aunt Holly, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, and Uncle Seth, a wounded war veteran. We care deeply for each struggling member of this family: Holly trying to come to terms with her Native American heritage, Seth with his war wound, but most of all Owl, who has his own physical challenge and past to confront.

Ugle is partially deaf as a result of a severe childhood trauma that sent her father to prison. Her fiercely protective uncle has raised her ever since, imbuing her with his love of the forest and his knowledge of the natural world. Their special bond is evident from their first scene together:

“Seth… turns back to Owl, switching to the unspoken wavelength they share, cultivated from the day he and Holly brought her back to Waits Mountain, a seven-year-old with a four-inch fracture in her skull and a numbed terror from her brave new world without sound. Want to come? says his expression.”

This close-knit family and their fragile world are threatened by two events: the release of Owl’s father from prison and the arrival of Cody, a neighbor’s grandson whom Seth has taken on to help with the extermination. The father wants to reconnect with Owl, while Cody is threatening just by his presence. A refugee from the “big city” and its evil influences, he exudes an aura of danger from the moment we meet him.

Owl first encounters Cody in their forest, where she is keeping an eye on a fox about to give birth to kits. In classic meet-cute fashion, she takes an instant dislike to him after he mocks her for suspecting him of setting traps for the foxes.

French is masterful in conveying the simmering sexual tension between the two motley teenagers as they help Seth collect maple sap (the old-fashioned way, in buckets) and run it through the complicated vaporizer and bottling processes. When Cody mocks the small-town, rural setting—”a place people come to be buried”—Owl says it’s a place where “Everybody needs each other,” and also “a place to heal.” She gently invites him into her world, lets him watch her foxes, takes him snowshoeing and climbing, and explores the wreckage of an abandoned train. At each step, they share a little more about their traumatic childhoods and gradually lower their guards. The blossoming of this relationship is tender and hopeful.

But then Cody’s ugly past catches up with him and derails both the budding love affair and the course of the novel itself. This dark turn is triggered by an unexplained murder, followed by an action-packed chase scene into the snowy mountains. While it certainly heightens the tension and stakes, the sudden shift in tone has little foreshadowing and seems disconnected with the rest of the story.

Despite this flaw, it is still a beautiful novel, its carefully crafted prose style alternating between lush and lyrical and lean and staccato. French often disdains the use of pronouns and complete sentences, as in Owl’s description of fox traps:

“Do you know how they work?” Puts her pillow down. “Spring-loaded. Fox smells the bait, steps on the forehead”—she slaps his hand between both of hers, grips tightly, feels his forearm muscles stiffen, resists—”jaws slam her paw down.”

Cody holds his gaze. “Yes? Does that interrupt?”

Shaking his head. “Ordinary jaws.”

But then you get a description like this, about her growing feelings for Cody: “Yesterday her metamorphosis began in the trees, a slow discovery of wings folded to her back, not yet fully open—and with each step she knows she might will take flight…”

“Sugaring Off” stands out as a story about the importance of nature, deep family ties and a sense of place. By the end of the novel, the strength these things give Owl enables her to let her decide who deserves to be a part of her life.

Amy MacDonald is an author and freelance writer living in Portland. She can be contacted at (email protected)

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