The New York Time Sunday Book Review: South Side story, ‘Hold Fast,’ by Blue Balliett

CCH is pleased to note that it is among the organizations cited in the Scholastic Press novel for assisting the author as she researched her story.

By Abby McGanney Nolan

Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams” inspired the title of Blue Balliett’s “Hold Fast,” which opens with clear signals of the distress to come — and of the effort people require to stay hopeful through hardship. Before the novel even begins, Balliett offers dictionary definitions of the words “home,” “lost” and “time,” as well as a brief, sobering statement about the thousands of homeless children in Chicago. She also describes a 2003 diamond heist, at the time the biggest in history, in which the thieves were caught but the gems never found. All these elements play a part in the story that lies ahead.


By Blue Balliett

274 pp. Scholastic. $17.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)

In Balliett’s previous books, young characters are drawn into intricate mysteries involving valuable objects — from a stolen Vermeer and Charles Darwin’s Galápagos notebook to an Alexander Calder sculpture and a Frank Lloyd Wright house. In this, her latest and most heart-rending novel, a vulnerable family is at the heart of the mystery, with a mother, father, daughter and son at stake and almost irrevocably harmed.

“Hold Fast” opens with a mystifying incident. In a South Side neighborhood, in the middle of “the bitterest, meanest, darkest, coldest winter in anyone’s memory,” a man is hit by a truck and vanishes. When the police arrive on the scene, they find only a battered bicycle, a small notebook and strewn groceries.

The bewildering disappearance of Dashel Pearl haunts the rest of the book as Balliett shifts backward in time to introduce the most devoted of young families, and then forward to show the present travails of Dashel’s wife, Summer, and their two children. As in her previous books, Balliett makes the reader feel some of her characters’ confusion as they try to solve dangerous puzzles. The central question — “But when is Dash coming home?” — hangs over everything.

Words, stories and intriguing patterns once gave the Pearl family joy and comfort in their modest one-room apartment. Now, the three remaining Pearls — Summer, 11-year-old Early and 4-year-old Jubilation (a k a Jubie) — hold on fiercely to an old, out-of-print Langston Hughes collection after their home is ransacked by a gang of masked thugs. Other than Dash’s notebook and some clothes, Hughes’s “First Book of Rhythms” is the only family possession the thugs left intact. It’s a treasured physical reminder of Dash, a librarian and aspiring writer, and when the remaining threesome is forced to leave their apartment and neighborhood for safety’s sake, they carry the book with them.

A former educator (she taught third and fourth grade at Chicago’s Lab School before her first novel, “Chasing Vermeer,” was published), Balliett incorporated an abundance of facts and provocative questions about Vermeer, Wright, Calder and Darwin into her previous books. In “Hold Fast,” a crucial subject is poetry, and a multitude of words are defined and pondered, with each chapter repeating a certain word — “click,” “clutch,” “crash” — in an almost incantatory rhythm. But the main lessons here are to be found in the moving depictions of the social safety net and life in a homeless shelter. Through Early’s eyes, Balliett reveals the family’s often grim experience. The police are mostly dismissive, Dash’s library supervisors aren’t helpful, new schoolmates can be cruel, and the shelter is an uneasy refuge. “Never walk away from anything around here,” one veteran advises, “unless you got eyes in the back of your head.”

Days pass and as her father fails to show, Early notices her mother’s inability to cope. Separated from her beloved Dash, Summer admits to her daughter that she “can’t see a way out of this.” Early seems to hear her father urging her to figure out what’s gone wrong with their world. She dives into detective mode, tracks down Dash’s high school mentor, then interrogates Dash’s old supervisor and colleagues. Balliett makes these actions perfectly believable — like her father, Early asks questions, gets in over her head and makes unorthodox connections.

The story’s criminals and conspiracies around diamond smuggling and old books are never quite as compelling as its 11-year-old sleuth. The villains seem more odd than dangerous, and their ­nefarious operation comes across as needlessly complicated. But the multifaceted Early Pearl, ever observant and always pondering, shines as bright as any ­diamond.

Abby McGanney Nolan reviews ­children’s books for Booklist and The Washington Post.