Book Review~~Do Wooden Flutes Sound Different? Penny Noyce’s New Novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE

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In her blog post of 5 February 2017–“Do Wooden Flutes Sound Different?”Penny Noyce writes,

“Three flutes, three sections to the book: that’s the organizing principle behind my young adult fantasy, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. Kiran, the flute boy who wants to become a warrior to avenge his father’s death, first plays a flute made of birchwood . . “

The flute, in a variety of forms,  governs the story of Kiran, and the slightly different sounds produced by the novel’s three flutes–made, respectively, of birchwood, cedar, and beechwood–mark his journey, as he strives to become a warrior.

Penny Noyce is a Harvard-and-Stanford-educated scientist and physician, so it is not surprising that she looked into the question of whether, in fact, the wood from which a flute is carved significantly affects the music it makes.  In her blog, she writes that the answer is uncertain.

(Red Beech Temple Drone
Flute – F# minor – Custom Carving)

Although definitely not a scientist, I was curious enough to call an old friend who is a musician and a biologist. Susan Reigler told me that she knows, from playing stringed instruments, that certain woods vibrate more easily than others and so they transmit sound more or less fully. You might, for example, get more overtones, or a richer timbre. Beyond that, she was no more certain of an answer than Dr. Noyce. As she pointed out, her instrument is the trumpet!

Thanks to the generosity of Todd Chaplin at Southern Cross Flutes, I found these wonderful images of beechwood flutes, and another attempt to capture in words the obviously elusive sounds of the woods.  Todd wrote,

“The woods do have quite a different feel, cedar is very resonant and creates a warm loud sound, beech is a bit cleaner/sharper and more muted. Those are the best descriptions I can think of :)” 

It is often just such intriguing questions that make both the books that Noyce writes, and the many others that Tumblehome Learning publishes, such an adventure to read.  The Beechwood Flute is a wonderful addition to that catalogue.

This review is the third I have written about Pendred Noyce, her books, and her publishing company, Tumblehome Learning.  The minute I knew she had a new book out, I wrote to ask her for a copy to review.  Amazon delivered The Beechwood Flute to my door late last week, and from the first page I was happily immersed in Kiran’s fantastic story–a story which begins with a scene so typical of the competition and mild taunts between two adolescent boys that it could occur anywhere, at any time.

There are early hints that the setting might not be modern–Kiran’s wooden sword and his boots, and Ryan’s tunic, but those hardly register and can be easily explained in the context of a morning’s sword practice anywhere, any time.  Although I did wonder how often we hear a hometown called a “village,” it didn’t seem important.  It isn’t long, though, until Noyce confronts us with decidedly unfamiliar words like “seffidges” and “snuffler,” and we can no longer avoid the strong suspicion that we have entered a world not our own.

I couldn’t resist the urge to “Google” both words.  I checked a number of online dictionaries and, by this point, wasn’t really surprised to find neither hide nor hair of a snuffler or a seffidge.

Here is the introduction to our hero from the very first page of The Beechwood Flute:

    “When he reached the bluff overlooking the village, Kiran leaned his flute against the trunk of a fir tree and drew his wooden sword. Ryan stood waiting for him, boots planted in the dirt, sword slicing the air.      
     ‘Took your time, snake spit,’ Ryan said.
      Ryan’s shoulders bulged in his tunic and despite the morning cold, sweat already trickled down his neck.
      Kiran took a step forward. ‘I’m ready,’ he said, hoping his voice didn’t betray him. He wasn’t ready. He’d been crazy to ask Ryan to meet him for an extra practice session. They were both sixteen, but Ryan was a head taller than Kiran and heavily muscled. Ryan didn’t need more practice.
      Ryan let his sword tip touch the ground. His black hair lay matted on his forehead and his lip curled. ‘Are you sure, flute boy? Bulo’s not here to call a halt this time.'”

(Red Beech Temple Drone
Double Flute – F minor)

Penny’s books have always been good, and she has a clear eye for the strengths of the writers she and her team choose to publish, but I have found The Beechwood Flute an accomplishment beyond what I’ve read of her work so far. It is more complex and more nuanced. It is more demanding of its readers.  And a comment I couldn’t have imagined making about a Young Adult Fantasy: it is more sophisticated.

On her blog, “View from the Windowseat,” Penny writes about her hopes for The Beechwood Flute, a novel begun seven years ago, set aside, and to which she returned with a renewed sense of mission. That mission is clearly stated in her blog and richly realized in the novel itself. 

“Now, in the new book about a flute boy who wants to be a soldier, I wanted to explore certain questions of psychology and identity. To do so, I needed a society that highlighted issues of bravery and justice in a way that would be clear to young readers.”

The Beechwood Flute delivers a strong message about fighting for what you believe in, taking risks, dealing with difficulty and failure, and facing hard truths that might change how you think about yourself and those you love. It is a novel about the willingness to be changed. It is a novel about growing up, sometimes before you’re ready. These are not easy ideas. That they are wrapped here in a tight, exciting, page-turning, darned good story, is sure to leave those young adults not only satisfied, but thinking new thoughts.

But “messages” can be tedious and are often clumsily introduced.  The Beechwood Flute constructs what it wants to say on a firm foundation of classical mythology and Jungian archetypes.  The best example I found was the allusion to the myth of the Fisher King, who has sustained a wound that can only be healed by a pure knight who seeks him out and asks the right question. In Flute, Kiran is that knight, and he is on a quest to find a father to whom he can prove himself worthy.

During that search, Kiran more than once encounters what Noyce calls “The Dark River,” an image that draws on the primitive and archetypal symbol of water.  And water is, always, an element of transformation. It is through the Red Sea that the Israelites must escape slavery in Egypt, and through the waters of the Jordan River that they are transformed from slaves into a nation. John the Baptist baptizes with that same water.  And it is by first setting boundaries around the waters of Chaos (“the deep”) that Yahweh creates the world.  The story of Kiran and his flutes fits comfortably into that mythological tradition.

When my son was in the sixth grade, I read aloud to him The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and we often talk about the day I read about the Elves of the High Kindred crossing the water to the Grey Havens which, even as a sixth grader, he knew was death. And from that greatest of all fantasy novels,

 “Then Elrond and Galadriel rode on; for the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed and an end was come to the song and the story of those times . . . and there was a white ship lying . . . [and] on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle Earth. And . . . the grey rain curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a fair green country under a swift sunrise.”

Change and surrender to change. The Elves leave Middle Earth because the Third Age, the Age when the lines between good and evil were clear, is ending, and a more ambiguous age is about to begin.  It is into our Age of Ambiguities that Penny Noyce ushers her hero, Kiran. The vehicle she has chosen, the genre of fantasy, allows him to be–and us to perceive him as–one who still takes up sword and flute in the cause of the Good.

My temptation here is to launch into a vivid and enthusiastic summary of the plot of The Beechwood Flute.  I think it is enough to give my guarantee that you will find it difficult to stop reading before you have reached the conclusion of Kiran’s tale and impossible to walk away without a different perspective on the young adults in your life and possibly on yourself.

A final note. As a committed reader of novels, the quality I value most is well-drawn characters.  I believe that, in the long run, character is plot.  Penny Noyce has made my week!  In the first chapter we meet:

Kiran, a musician who wants to be a warrior so badly that he is willing to take a beating and humiliation at the hands of his sparring partner, Ryan.

Ryan, an apparently ruthless and unkind older boy who taunts and torments Kiran and yet saves him from toppling over a cliff.

Nora, the “herb-woman,” an eccentric threat to the village priest, among others, who seems clairvoyant in her knowledge about Kiran and foretells he will succeed in becoming a warrior.

Ser Vetel, the priest, who is alternately gruff and a little tender with Kiran.  The same priest who warns him against Nora.

Myra, Nora’s daughter, who sings in the girls’ chorus and lives “next door to seffidges” (who we have figured out by now are slaves).

I have been introduced to these characters in Chapter 1; the stage is set, the players have entered.  Each of them is intriguing and multi-layered; not one is flat or one-dimensional. I am hooked because I cannot bear not to know more about them.  I am hooked because these brilliant sketches (and they are just sketches) have assured me that there is a great deal more to know. I am hooked from the first paragraph of the first page because, as in any good piece of writing, I see myself.

Although I am almost never a fan of Young Adult literature, I have not only enjoyed this book, I have told friends about it and, least likely of all, I expect I will read it again!

And, by the way, I wasn’t wrong about those characters. As I try to resist starting a second reading right now, I find myself turning pages, thumbing through the book, and I am reminded of a delightful development.

I will only say that Myra doesn’t disappear from the story.

 

(Figured Red Beech
Love Flute – F minor)

 

 

 

You can find Pendred Noyce on her blog at:
Pendred Noyce

You can buy The Beechwood Flute from:
Amazon

You can find out more about Penny and her books at:
Amazon. Pendred Noyce Author Page

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3 Responses to "Book Review~~Do Wooden Flutes Sound Different? Penny Noyce’s New Novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE"
  1. Thank you, Dean, for your close read and elegant, generous review.

  2. Audra Jean says:

    I may need to read this book!

  3. Todd Chaplin says:

    The woods do have quite a different feel, cedar is very resonant and creates a warm loud sound, beech is a bit cleaner/sharper and more muted. Those are the best descriptions I can think of for our Native American Style Flutes

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