Book Review: The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Haley Chewins

The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Haley Chewins is a mystical middle-grade novel that celebrates the importance of family, resilience, and belonging. Chewins masterfully builds a magical world where three sisters and their magical dogs, known as droomhunds,  live alone in a house that is bewitched to care for them. While they can have most everything they want, Willow, Mayhap, and Pavonine just want to be reunited with their parents. But the grass outside the house is powerful and deceptive and the girls must stay away from it to stay safe. Chewins creates a magical world situated right within our “normal world” and propels the characters and readers into a captivating mystery.

As I read The Sisters of Straygarden Place, I was spellbound by Chewins’ execution of a simple but powerful craft move: her structure of microcosm. The move, discussed by Jack M. Bickham in his book Scene and Structure, is deceptively simple. For every effect (think plot development) in a story, there has to be a cause (think background). Structuring your writing in this way “helps the reader suspend disbelief” and “shows a world where everything isn’t just chaos.” This is a tall order for any author, but Chewins’ delivers brilliantly.

I first connected Chewins’ writing with Bickham’s craft guidance after reading the sentence, “for every good thing in the world, there is a little bad to go with it.” The duality inspired me to dig deeper into the moment by moment structure of the chapters. The beauty of the book is found in every sentence, every satisfying response to each stimulus.

All fiction writers work hard to show their characters’ feelings. Chewins’ employs stimulus response to create this for the reader in a logical way. The stimulus “Seekatrix scrambled painfully out of Mayhap’s mind,” is followed by the response, “She knew he was petrified.” In another part of the book, the stimulus “The drawer in his side shot open, and the card was drawn back into it…” is followed by Mayhap’s response ‘“What happened?” asked Mayhap, her heart turned spiky.’ In both of these examples, the stimulus serves as a way for Chewins to show the reader how the character is internalizing the situation and to build the conflict. 

Sometimes, Chewins even purposefully breaks the stimulus… response pattern to propel the plot forward. For example, an important magical character provides the stimulus by asking: “are you going to come outside?” but Chewins forces an interruption of a logical response and presents another stimulus that is surprising for the reader: “Before Mayhap had a chance to answer the grass yanked her out…” A more concise example is also grounded in a moment of dialogue: “Pavonine was about to reply when there was earsplitting scream.” In both of these examples, Chewins acknowledges this interruption for the reader to keep the novel grounded in a believable plot.

Chewins also utilizes stimulus…response to point out for the reader where there are holes in the story. This is truly where the mystery lives! For example, Mayhap asks, ‘“But why? I want to know why.” The contract shivered as though bristling. Be patient, it seemed to say.’ Chewins builds suspense and emphasizes this clue for the reader to hold onto as they keep reading!

As the story arc reaches climax, Chewins still maintains this simple structure to ensure seemingly ‘out of nowhere’ responses come from. For example, the personified grass states “Friends of Quiverity Edavane, are you?” to give a stimulus for the unexpected reaction of the characters right at the end. You’ll have to go read the book to find out what reaction I’m referring to!

As an author, I found places where Chewins accomplishes a very specific goal to move the plot. Chewins uses cause and effect to maintain logic within her magical world. For example, Mayhap clearly needs to find an object she hadn’t noticed before, Chewins provides a logical cause: Mayhap’s droomhund whines and when Mayhap responds, she is now in the right location to discover the item. Chewins fills the “holes” in her plot using strategies like this! This is especially true when she is clarifying how or why a piece of magic differs from our world. She still uses cause and effect to keep the magic consistent throughout the story. For example, in explaining how magic is able to be absorbed she writes that there are “cracks the magic can seep into.”

Chewins’ work helps me to realize that structure not only ‘works’ for fantasy just as well as for realistic fiction, but is imperative for the reader to suspend disbelief. To craft strong mystery within fantasy, Chewins first presents causes (backgrounds) that the characters think are the reasons for why something is happening in the book, but as the mystery is unraveled, those causes are explained in new ways to make more sense to the character and reader. In order to share the example of this in the book without spoiling the ending, I will only share the sentence frame. “You said it was… but it was…” This work of creating details of cause and effect that as first mismatched in subtle ways is central to the creation of the mystery and is also why the resolution at the end of the book is so satisfying to the reader!

Any reader searching for the next great fantastical mystery should look no further! The Sisters of Straygarden Place by Hayley Chewins will pull you in, provide you with the context to solve the mysterious events on your own, and supply an ending that will satisfy and give you hope to carry back into the ‘real world.’ Any author looking for a great mentor text that uses a simple structure such as cause and effect to create an enthralling story that will be loved by readers may find studying the craft moves of Hayley Chewins is a fantastic next step in their study of craft at the microcosm level. It will certainly inspire your next revision of any current WIP!

The publisher provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Sisters of Straygarden Place
By Haley Chewins
Candlewick Press
October 13, 2020
Available for preorder


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