Middle-grade novel (ages 10 and up) – Twelve-year-old Talia’s mother has recently died of cancer, and so for the first time, Talia accompanies her father on his annual summer trip to study beluga whales in the small Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba.
While Beth Hautala’s Waiting for Unicorns is not a book in the fantasy genre, one thing to know about Talia is that she’s a girl prone toward fantasy. She keeps a jar of wishes. She hangs her hopes on discovering a unicorn whale (narwhal) to wish on, for a chance to give a final goodbye to her mother.
And as can be expected in the midst of her immense grief, Talia’s defenses are high at the outset of the novel: “The more prepared you are for things, the less chance they have of surprising you. Or scaring you. Or breaking your heart.” More fantasy … which leaves ample room to show this endearing character’s potential for growth over the course of the novel.
While in Churchill, Talia and her father stay with one of Talia’s parents’ dear friends, an Inuit woman named Sura. Right away, Sura is an adult whom Talia can trust. Sura’s alpha-caring posture begins to open Talia’s heart – the first pathway in, fittingly, through Sura’s homemade pancakes and warm kitchen. “All of a sudden I had to rearrange some of the things I’d been imagining about her,” Talia says.
Later, it’s Sura’s steadiness and consistency that starts to earn her a place in Talia’s heart. “She took care of people, loving them with the food she made and other things she did for them … Sura was one of those people who seemed to know what others need and wanted to do something about it.”
As Talia expresses, at first she had natural worries over whether Sura would try to replace her mother. “I’d been worried that Sura was all determined to be some kind of fill-in mom. But the better I got to know her, the more I realized that Sura wasn’t actually treating me any different than she treated everyone else.”
Thankfully instead, Sura serves as a match-maker between Talia and her mother, helping to keep her mother’s memory alive by such gestures as talking of Talia’s mother often, gifting Talia an old photograph of her mother, letting Talia know, “ ‘You are so like her.’”
This calm, solid presence of Sura’s eventually softens Talia’s defenses. The turnaround point for their relationship comes the day Talia refuses to come home for lunch one day, so Sura brings lunch to Talia on the shore. Talia, overcome with immense alarm over her father’s whereabouts, ends up tossing the tin cup of meat stew that represents the cold Arctic and the huge losses she’s been facing. “I didn’t even care that Sura was right there beside me. I thought she would be mad, but she wasn’t,” says Talia. Through Sura’s response, Talia realizes that Sura makes room for all of her emotions. “She just sat with me and didn’t say a word. She didn’t even ask me to bring back the cup. So I didn’t. I left it there on the shore until the tide eventually came in and carried it away.”
And so it is no surprise that ultimately Sura is the person Talia trusts with her tears – the tears that need to flow in order for Talia to adapt and grow. She has so much to cry about, and thankfully she finds a safe place for the release of her sadness in Sura’s loving arms: “I cried for Mom because she was never coming back. I cried for Dad because he had lost so much, and I cried for me because I couldn’t do this alone.”
Later Sura offers wise words to Talia: “‘Loving someone means that sometimes you have to risk getting messy. It’s not always very fun, but it’s always better than being alone, or watching someone you love hurt alone.’”
Ultimately, coming to an understanding of this, among other universal struggles, is the beautiful path we see Talia embrace. As Talia puts it in her own words: “I guess when it came right down to it, I was terrified by how uncontrollable things could be, and of how terribly small I was, right in the middle of them.” And yet, she yearns for the treasure more than she lets her fear control her: “But I wanted to try. I wanted to be there for the people I loved.”
Among other gems in this novel are the tender-hearted memories Talia holds for her mother, the weaving in of folklore as Talia recalls the stories her mother told her, and the circle of other wise adults in Talia’s life.
For instance, “The Birdman,” who models an acceptance of futility over losses that cannot be changed: “‘But, Tal, it doesn’t matter how much time passes, or how many wishes I make. I’m not going to be able to change the fact that a polar bear tried to eat me for breakfast.’”
And if polar bears out to eat characters isn’t alarming enough, it is rather alarming that Talia’s father takes off on a research trip, just after Talia’s mother has died (even though it does create a vacuum for Sura to fill). And there are other frustrating moments when Dad is not in the lead, his own pain over his wife’s death getting in the way of his ability to help Talia through.
But when Dad finally returns from his whale-watching excursion, it is clear Talia still sees her father as her anchor: “I felt like a snow globe. Someone had shaken me up and sent everything inside of me swirling around, and now, here in my dads arms, was the stillness.”
Rewardingly, Dad has grown through the course of the novel, too – eventually he, too, is able to help Talia adapt to the futility of her mom’s death. “Wishing can be very good. But I think we both know, unicorn whale or not, all the wishes in the world won’t bring her back.’”
Throughout the novel, Talia shares her beautifully vulnerable approach and insight. Some of my favorite examples of Talia’s soft heart include:
“Sometimes I forget that almost everything takes practice. That I wasn’t just born knowing how to do stuff, like read, or play the recorder, or go on living. And breathing, and loving stuff without my mom around. Sometimes you have to do things over and over again before you can do them well.”
“I couldn’t help but wonder: You can chart distance across a map in minutes and seconds. This I knew. But could you chart the growth of your heart by the things you do and say, by what you think and how you feel?”
As I read this novel, I did feel that I was reading the chart of Talia’s heart’s growth — a very satisfying journey to embark on with Talia.