Nearly almost all of Donna Jo Napoli’s books are based around a simple formula: to take a well-known myth, legend or fairytale, and retell the story from the eyes of a certain character (often the villain, allowing them to defend their actions). It has been a technique that has worked brilliantly for several of her stories.
In this case, Breath draws upon the German folktale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, though it is not told by the Piper himself. Instead, our narrator is a twelve-year old boy named Saltz, a resistant of the town of Hameln (who is ultimately revealed to be the young boy who is left behind by the piper’s music — though you probably guessed that from the start). Though we are not told this till the postscript, Saltz suffers from cystic fibrosis and is named after the sweat that often pours off his body; the “salt” as it were.
He is a perceptive and compassionate boy, a member of the local coven and a friend to the priests of the local churches, who likes to draw his own conclusions about Christianity and paganism, seeing both virtue and corruption in both of them. Living with the rest of his family on a small farm, he is often bullied by his oldest brother thanks to his inability to help with the heavy chores of the place, and so he usually keeps in the company of his grandmother who knows how to best deal with his affliction.
When the people around him begin to suffer under the effects of some mysterious disease, he is the only one to try and rationally understand what might be causing it. Superstition and witchcraft runs rampant, and despite Saltz’s best efforts to rid the town of rats and help the townsfolk, those around him cannot help but be suspicious when he is the only one not affected.
The story itself is a little choppy; the blurb would have you believe that the accusation and trial of Saltz on charges of witchcraft is the climax of the story, though in reality this portion of the book amounts to very little. Instead it is more a story of endurance through illness and despair, spotted through with little moments of illumination and hope.
It all accumulates in the famous charming of the children (and in this case, the adults as well) of Hameln, as the vengeful Piper spirits them away into the hills. I couldn’t help but feel, when Saltz prepares himself to follow in their footsteps and attempt to find his adoptive sister, that this is where the story should have started. The Piper himself, his methods and his destination are left a mystery (something that Napoli generally attempts to unwind in her other novels).
Napoli is very good — almost too good — at describing the effects of the disease that ravages the town: the swollen feet, blackened limbs, the insatiable sexual urges, the terrifying hallucinations; and often there are some rather grisly episode — a baby who has its fingers chewed off by rats, a toad that is eaten alive, the bloody murder of a person with a scythe as the murder weapon. After reading this book, I felt like taking a long walk in the sunshine.
As usual, Napoli paints a vivid picture of a time and place unfamiliar to our own; it is hardly a pleasant book to read. (Of course, the counter-argument to this is that it obviously isn’t supposed to be, but just be warned that this isn’t a light bit of holiday reading). Although a postscript tells us what the true cause of the malady was, it hardly alleviates the horrors we’ve just experienced.
I can’t fault Napoli for her atmosphere: it’s grim, confusing, terrifying but ultimately (even though despair holds sway in Hameln town) Saltz’s character provides a glimmer of hope. Is this a good book book? Yes. Is it an enjoyable one? Not really.