Hour of the Bees, by Linsday Eagar (Candlewick, March 2016), is the story of a magic-infused summer in which a young girl works through family tensions, past and present. And yes, the magic is real, but yet still this is one I'd give to a fan of realist fiction before I'd give it to a fan of fantasy (because the fantasy fan might be disappointed that there isn't More magic, and be all blasé, but the reader of realistic fiction might actually be stunned when the magic comes to fruition!). NB--I tried to figure out before reading this one whether it was "magical realism" of a sort where the magic isn't actually real, and couldn't, so I'll say flat out that I was sure at the end that real magic had happened.
Carol does not want to be spending the summer on a dry as bone and hot as heck dingy, rundown ranch in the middle of southwestern no-where. She doesn't particularly want to get to know Serge, the Mexican grandfather she's never met (her dad took off from the ranch as soon as he could and never looked back) and she doesn't like him calling her by her Spanish name, Carolina. She wants pool parties and sleepovers, not rail-thin sheep and rattlesnakes. But she and her family (Dad, Mom, big half-sister, little brother) are stuck there for the summer, because Serge is suffering from dementia, and the ranch house must be cleaned out and sold.
But being stuck somewhere means you have a chance to get to know a place and its people, and that's what happens for Carolina. Gradually she becomes drawn into her grandfather's stories of the magical tree that once grew in his village, that kept all the villagers from harm, and kept them there, all together, safe and long-lived. And how her own grandmother couldn't stand being stuck, and left, with a bracelet of the tree's bark to keep her safe. Off she went on wild adventures, coming home between times, and seeing her living life this way, the other villages decided to follow her lead, taking pieces of the tree away, until there was no tree left. With no tree, the bees left too, taking with them all the water in the village's lake.
So Carolina's grandfather tells her the stories, and how the bees will one day come to bring the water back, and in the meantime her parents work to close down his life. But the magic that fills Serge's stories spills over into reality, and Carolina sets in motion the return of the bees, and the water. When Serge is at last installed (unwilling and sedated) in a nursing home, the drought breaks, and Carolina, wanting to hear from him the end of the story, and wanting to bring his life full circle, risks her life to take him home again (nb--she makes Bad Choices involving her sister's car. But she really has no other choice....her parents aren't listening to her).
It's a very moving story, and one with lots of appeal for those who like intergenerational relationships. Not much Happens (until the Bad Choice toward the end), but the pages are full of interest for those who like small things made vividly real. Carolina is likeable, and is enough a normal middle school kid to be generally relatable, even as her circumstances stray further and further from the non-magical norm, and she starts to make independent choice towards being her own person. Her decision to reclaim her roots, now that she has found where her roots lie, is heartwarming.
It's also nice to see a family that includes both a loving father and a loving mother, although the big sister is perhaps exaggeratedly unpleasant.
I don't think this will be every kid's cup of tea as a book to read for their own pleasure (it's not light reading, and I think the understated cover will do a good job fending off readers who really wouldn't like it), but I do think there will be readers (introspective, dreamy ones) who will like it lots.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher