“But right now I can’t help thinking this universe is a mystery that wants to be solved; a mystery trapped inside each and every one of us.”
I’ve been thinking for a long time what to say about this novel. I have finished Beneath Wandering Stars months ago and I have so much to tell you guys about it but whenever I face computer screen or paper, I am at loss of words. This wasn’t any other YA novel I have ever read and at the same time, this was everything a YA novel should be. Sure, this novel doesn’t have handsome fairies, vengeful queens, witches or wizards. It’s no fairytale retelling or dystopian fiction. It is about a girl and a boy walking a pilgrim, as simple as that. And yet, it extends even further into something complex and deep and wonderful at the same time. I also read a similar book long ago which features walking teenagers as well. No one dies horribly in this book, though.
Beneath Wandering Stars approaches spirituality and philosophy that I don’t get to see enough in recent YA fiction, not unless we’re talking about the angst-driven coming-of-age novel which main philosophy is to hate the world and all those living in it. Beneath Wandering Stars isn’t written with hate and despair, it’s written with longing.
When I came upon the first pages of the novel, I was immediately hooked. It sets a somber tone that doesn’t go overboard melodramatic.
Mail service in the midst of a war. It’s crazy when you stop and think about it. Some guy’s job requires him to dodge bullets just so messages like the one that arrived in my mailbox today can make it from soldiers to their families. The book in my hands is almost as tattered as the manila envelope it came in, postmarked in Kabul. There’s no letter, no note of explanation, only this dog-eared paperback that’s seen better days. An image of a golden galley—one of those ancient Greek ships that wandered the waves of the wine-dark sea—sits in the center of the cobalt cover, right below the boldfaced title.
“That from your soldier?”
My soldier? For the record, I will never have a soldier.
–Ashlee Cowles, Beneath Wandering Stars
This novel doesn’t zip ahead with drama and action; it barely has those and I find this realistic than any other YA novel I’ve read. But, I can’t help to expect something big to happen but that’s just me. The dialogues sound unnatural for a bunch of teenagers, I have to say, and I think it lacks the zest and energy that makes YA novels so vibrant. Our narrator, Gabi, is thankfully not a heroine carved out of angst and despair. She is still your common surly teenager but her character is more melancholic than sullen and I like that she tries to hide her sadness through her sense of humor and positive-thinking. It is refreshing to see a female protagonist who isn’t so bitter about everything but it’s a bit alienating as well, quite like how your head feels lighter after cutting off your hair. On the other hand, I don’t think we see enough novels about military experiences geared for young adults. It’s all pretty new to me so it’s an insightful viewpoint on how people born from military families (aka military brats) such as Gabi, Lucas and Seth live and see the world.
Even though the novel revolves around military brats, it does not spin around war, violence, and human deprivation but rather, it focuses on its emotional side-effects. In retrospect, the book can be too darn serious but you get a sense of tranquility while reading. If you ask me, it’s better to read it one chapter at a time. This book has tons of ideas, some random, some without much sense but all of them thought-provoking that requires time to process. Whilst most YA novels add so much sex, violence, and depravity for a compelling story, Beneath Wandering Stars revolves around life, growth and companionship that most YA novels seem to be forgetting these days. More than anything else, it’s a novel about lost people.
“The clues are all there—layered in the part of us that loves starry skies and sunsets, whispered by the muse who inspires painters and poets, hidden in the fractured piece of us that somehow feels more whole in a room full of strangers from around the globe. I don’t know much, but I know this thing, this mystery, must be behind the desire that has stirred millions of pilgrims across the centuries. Why else would people walk hundreds of miles to a place they’ve never seen? What is it that our restless hearts searching for?
— Ashlee Cowles, Beneath Wandering Stars
On the other hand, The Camino de Santiago is a beauty itself. The whole thing just fascinated me that I don’t mind doing it some time in my life. I’d even bring the book with me 😀 The Camino de Santiago is a route used by pilgrims, quite like a long trek towards St. James’s shrine, and is used as a path for spiritual growth. There is so much history involved throughout this book and most of it is at lost to me. Fortunately, Ashlee Cowles describes the rich history and culture of the area through the people Gabi and Seth meet along the way. Every person they meet has a reason for walking the pilgrims’ path, may it be amusing, profound or simple yet all are interesting the same as we see how each story influence Gabi’s personal walk as well. At times, Gabi herself discovers stories from the past that borders to the supernatural and I think it coincides well to the spiritual element of the novel– of history affecting the present, of old stories influencing the new, and of ghosts reminding the living that they are indeed alive. In between their walks, we see glimpses of Gabi and Seth’s shyer and more doubtful selves and to ultimately see them survive the walk and their own personal wars together is satisfying. The book doesn’t end in an ultimately, triumphant ending, but it is hopeful.
After her soldier brother is horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Gabriela must honor the vow she made: If anything ever happened to him, she would walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain, making a pilgrimage in his name. The worst part is that the promise stipulates that she must travel with her brother’s best friend–a boy she has despised all her life. Her brother is in a coma, and Gabi feels that she has no time to waste, but she is unsure. Will she hesitate too long, or risk her own happiness to keep a promise? An up-close look at the lives of the children of military families, “Beneath Wandering Stars” takes readers on a journey of love, danger, laughter, and friendship, against all odds. (Goodreads)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashlee Cowles grew up an Army “brat” and subsequently worked with a nonprofit that supports teens in military families. She holds graduate degrees from Duke University and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and teaches literature and philosophy. As a student, Ashlee studied abroad in Spain and walked part of the Camino de Santiago.