Hold Fast by Blue Balliett is a rare book. An appealing mystery, a book that builds empathy, a literary feast of words, beautiful writing, and important themes, with a compelling and very likable protagonist, Hold Fast addresses serious social issues while providing hours of entertaining reading. I loved it and plan to read it again with my reader’s notebook in hand. There is just so much to notice and note in this story that I must sit down and deconstruct some of the passages and reflect upon them further.
Ms. Balliett starts the story with the definition and a note about the origin of a single simple word. That word, Home, seems common enough to most people. People who have a home too often forget to appreciate it, but Ms. Balliett makes sure that her readers think about it by defining the word explicitly. She then goes on to reveal some startling statistics about the homeless in Chicago, the setting for Hold Fast. Ms. Balliett goes on to define the words time and lost in the introduction to the novel making it practically impossible for her readers not to begin to develop questions about how these words fit together.
Ms. Balliett utilizes word origins, definitions, and word play throughout the story to provide a unique but systematic structure to the novel. This device is quite effective as the Pearl family, particularly the characters of Dash and Early, are word collectors and revel in the joy of language, literature, and books. Eleven-year-old Early, is a compelling and attractive protagonist, and while she is obviously academically gifted, her character is fully developed, authentic, and may well become one of my favorite book characters. Like her father Dash, Early loves words and the rhythm of poetry, particularly the poetry of Langston Hughes. She revels in being able to immerse herself in the world of words through reading and writing and when Dash goes missing and her family suddenly loses their home, Early clings to her love of language, counting on familiar words and poems to provide guidance and solace. As Early takes on more responsibility for her grief-stricken family, she attempts to solve the mystery of Dash’s disappearance.
While the plot is intriguing and the characters are appealing, it is Ms. Balliett’s descriptive (almost poetic) prose and the unique structure of the novel that really makes Hold Fast shine. Readers are able to feel the despair of a suddenly fatherless and homeless family caught in the midst of a harsh Chicago winter and a mystery that they do not understand. Ms. Balliett utilizes the family’s love of language and Langston Hughes’ poetry to build the themes of the novel which emphasizes the poetic nature of her own prose.
The best books and stories are those that leave a reader thinking about them long after the book is closed. Hold Fast is such a book. Anyone who reads it will never look at their home, the homeless or dreams the same way ever again. This is a must read.