Gwenda Bond’s debut young adult novel “Blackwood” (Strange Chemistry) revisits one of America’s most enduring mysteries. On modern-day Roanoke Island, 114 people disappear – the same number that vanished from the island’s lost colony in the 16th century. Two misfit teens, Miranda (daughter of the town drunk) and Phillips (who hears the voices of the dead) team up to solve both mysteries in order to bring back their missing neighbors.
Bond, a Kentucky native who lives in Lexington, says her novel has strong elements of the supernatural, but it’s also rooted in small town life. Miranda, the novel’s heroine, is an outcast from an infamous family. In a subversion of the “Chosen One” trope found frequently in young adult fiction, where an ordinary protagonist is discovered to be supernaturally special, the townspeople think Miranda is cursed.
“And who doesn’t feel cursed when they’re a teenager?” says Bond with a laugh. “A lot of the book is about her discovering the truth of her family’s history and where she fits into the world, which I feel is a pretty universal theme. Everybody has to go through that process of figuring out what does my background mean about who I am, and will it define who I am, or are there other choices I want to make?”
Miranda’s partner in the mystery is Phillips, the son of the island’s police chief, who gets himself in trouble in order to be sent away, because he can only hear the voices of the dead on Roanoke Island. The two outcast teens fall for each other while attempting to solve the mystery of the disappeared. Bond says she classifies “Blackwood” as a supernatural mystery, but she also points out that it has elements of fantasy, and it’s also a coming-of-age story and a bit of a romance. Unlike in adult fiction, young adult authors find they have more leeway to blur genres.
“Within young adult, everything is shelved together, regardless of content, whether it’s a straight-up realistic story or a fantasy or a dystopia. I think that leads to a really free sense of mixing and mashing up things, and not having to be so worried about it being explicitly one genre,” she says.
Bond began writing the book in 2005, but shelved the project after she ran into one very significant roadblock. Like centuries of historians, she couldn’t figure out what happened to those first 114 colonists.
“I didn’t know how I was going to solve the mystery, which is a problem. I feel like readers expect you to present a solution to them,” she says. “Finally, around 2010, I took the project out, dusted off all of my Roanoke Lost Colony and travel books and almost immediately came across the tidbit I needed to make it all come together.”
That bit of historical trivia is Queen Elizabeth I’s adviser John Dee’s involvement in planning the initial Roanoke voyages. Dee was a mathematician, a navigator and an astronomer. He was also an alchemist. Cue the supernatural connection Bond needed.
Bond will sign copies of “Blackwood” Saturday (1 p.m. in the Green Building) at the Writer’s Block Festival after a panel discussion on writing young adult literature. She will be joined by Louisville novelist Kelly Creagh , author of the “Nevermore” series, and Katrina Kittle, author of “Reasons to Be Happy.”
An explosion in the growth of the genre isn’t the only reason why it’s an exciting time to write and read YA lit. Bond says YA books meld “the children’s book love of storytelling and the adult focus on character.”
“You’re also dealing with these core questions of identity. And there’s an intensity to it, because characters are experiencing things for the first time, that I think is very appealing as a writer,” says Bond.