The Path of Names by Ari Goelman caught my eye because of its mixture of a real-life setting familiar to many American kids (summer camp), and a take on magic and mysticism not often found in kidlit or, for that matter, literature in general. I took it home and devoured it in a few nights.
Here’s what I learned from Goelman’s debut novel.
I’m sure that one of the reasons The Path of Names found a home at Arthur A. Levine was its strange and fruitful combination of history, mysticism, pop-culture references and Jewish folklore. It’s got ancient cults and throwback NYC, summer camp romances and text-messaging kids, Kabbalah and numerology, magic tricks and golems. Goelman’s novel is very much rooted in a present day that kids around the US will find comfortably familiar, whether their summer camp was of the Jewish variety or not. It takes that comfort, however, and turns it on its head, in a kooky ghost-story-cum-religious-history-lesson. One page we’re rooted firmly in a world with mosquitos, arts and crafts, overcrowded swimming pools and questionable food; on another, we’re in a surreal battle between good and evil, all spurred by an accidental discovery of the 72nd name of God. The book’s ingenuity made it a satisfying read.
Despite its complexity––or perhaps because of it––The Path of Names was a real page-turner. There were so many eccentric details to uncover, and so many questions that Goelman skillfully let linger as he wove together the historical and present-day story lines. Characters surprised us; some of the good guys turn out to be not-so-good, and some of the bad guys help out the heroine in the end. We’re emotionally invested in this summer camp and its several mysteries. Each carefully-plotted chapter ending provokes that classic reaction: “Well, perhaps I could read just one more…”
3. An offbeat heroine
Dahlia, the book’s protagonist, isn’t keen on summer camp from the beginning, and her melancholy attitude rings true for her age. She’s a math nerd and a magician, curious by nature, and when she becomes obsessed with two little ghost girls she sees on the first day of camp, it doesn’t do much to help her social status. Despite her quirks and her complaining, Dahlia is a lovable heroine, and a social misfit who is hurt when the other campers make fun of her––but, true to her independent nature, not that hurt. She likes who she is, and she’s confident and direct. When Dahlia has to save the camp, her main problem is convincing the others to help her out. I found myself wanting to hear more about Dahlia’s adventures.
A friendly reminder: As a writer, it’s important to learn something from every book you read. Make sure to approach your books not only as a reader, but also as a craftsperson. Take reading seriously––and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!
Adapted from my writing advice blog Better Writing Now.