By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Nora and Kettle is a rather lovely YA novel with an unexpectedly varied make-up. Beginning with the sudden and tragic death of privileged teen Nora’s mother, author Lauren Nicolle Taylor offers her reader no gentle settling-in period; we start acquainting ourselves with Nora during her worst moment. Quickly, we discover that her mother’s death wasn’t even the nadir of Nora’s misery, as she is left with her abusive father, forced to defend her disabled sister from his violence, and withdrawn from school in order to keep her suffering a secret. It’s truly a perfect storm of challenging circumstances. One small way in which Nora rebels against her cruel remaining parent is to gradually throw valuable possessions of her mother from the window of their elegant New York brownstone, and this is what links her to Kettle.
The house is too quiet. It’s like when she left, she took the sound with her. Everyone pads along the floors like they’re afraid of waking a demon in the basement. We’re stuck in this empty space, a void carved out so deep, so final, there’s nothing left to do but hug the edges and try not to fall in.
While Nora inhabits a world of financial privilege, Kettle’s life is one of isolation and exclusion; an escapee from an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, Kettle fights for work on the perilous docks rather than beg or steal, and cares for a ragtag group of runaways and orphans in a hidden subway tunnel. Fascinated by the expensive items flung from a luxurious brownstone, he later encounters Nora in tragic circumstances. Thus begins an incongruous but desperately needed friendship between the two.
Taylor’s historical setting is subtly integrated. While the post-WWII context is less of a feature in Nora’s narrative, it weighs heavy on the mind of Kettle. It’s an aspect of the period I knew nothing about; the internment in camps of over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor is not a widely-taught feature of the conflict here in the UK, and I was fascinated with the way Taylor incorporated it into Kettle’s mindset. In her Acknowledgements, Taylor explains that she was inspired to write Nora and Kettle by the experiences of her grandparents, who suffered tremendously in internment camps, and her personal engagement with the historical context lends the novel a sense of delicate intimacy.
Although perhaps jarring when considered out of context, this historical detail fits neatly alongside the fairy tale-like atmosphere of the novel; the placing of Kettle as a Peter Pan figure was easily missed (by me, anyway) early on, but the symbolism of his subterranean family standing in for the Lost Boys, and the key moment when Nora is pulled from her window both make the parallel more clear for the reader. Retellings of fairy tales have become something of a trend in YA, with several attempts to adapt Snow White (C.J. Redwine’s The Shadow Queen and Danielle Paige’s Stealing Snow), as well as Jessica Khoury’s The Forbidden Wish, which retold Aladdin from the (female) genie’s perspective. Nora and Kettle is the most successful at adapting its source material into something unique. Transporting Peter and Wendy to a recognizable historical period and familiar location gives the narrative a purpose beyond the mere borrowing of a well-known story.
These dreams feel like early memories, but they may not be. Maybe they are wishes. An invented past so my brain, my heart can believe that at some point, someone wanted me.
I remind myself I’m not with them anymore. I’m not a prisoner. I am free.
At its heart, I’ve always found Peter Pan, with its core of parentless children, to be rather a tragic story and, for this reason, it’s a suitable reference point for a novel which, while lovely, gives its reader plenty to feel sad about. The descriptions of Nora’s father and his horrifically violent episodes are detailed and distressing, while the suffering endured by Kettle’s “lost boys” would affect even the most heartless reader. Taylor finds beauty in the redemptive friendship between her protagonists, which gives the latter part of Nora and Kettle a more adventurous and optimistic tone. Ultimately, it’s a story of love and family, and the ways in which love can create a sense of family even when blood ties don’t exist.
I imagine it’s quite tricky to write a novel whose main message is love’s ability to counter adversity; the risk of descending into Disney-esque sentimentality is high, but Taylor avoids this pitfall by juxtaposing her novel’s sweet subtext with heartbreak and despair. Similarly, the clash of cultures between rich, white Nora and homeless, Japanese-American Kettle is managed with delicacy, with their inherent differences initially sparking conflict but ultimately creating a friendship that lingers beyond the final page. Billed as the first in a series of Paper Stars novels, Nora and Kettle establishes a strong pair of characters with plenty still to resolve when they return in a sequel. I, for one, will be back for more.
Nora and Kettle will be available soon at GPL.