In 1966, the River Arno overflowed its banks and flooded the city of Florence. The resulting 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage that flowed through the city’s streets damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books, as well as displacing 5,000 families. This despair was overshadowed by Mud Angels, people from around the world, who also flooded into Florence to help remove the mud and sludge and help restore both the city and the antiquities.
In One Thing Stolen, Beth Kephart (my favorite author) contrasts the despair and hope described above with the despair and hope of Nadia Caras, a seventeen year old girl in Florence for her professor father’s sabbatical, who suddenly has trouble verbalizing. It is her best friend, her family and a doctor, who provide the hope that she will regain her communication skills.
Although Nadia is supposed to be her father’s right hand during his research of the 1966 flood, she is losing herself in Florence. She is barely sleeping. She, inexplicably, has the urge to steal things, many of which end up in the intricate nests she weaves and hides under her bed. As she wanders the city alone, against her parents’ wishes, she runs into Benedetto, a young boy who steals flowers. He shows up in the oddest places, often giving Nadia a flower. The problem is that no one other than Nadia has seen him.
As Nadia begins to lose herself and think herself crazy, her link to sanity is finding Benedetto. However as much as she searches, he does not want to be found.
Beth Kephart has layered her stories here. There are the constant flashbacks of Nadia and her best friend, Maggie, in Philadelphia, when Nadia was in full control, when she was the one with all the ideas, the leader of the two person pack, in contrast to Nadia’s struggles now. There is the story of Nadia’s father’s empty notebook, his story of the flood more resembling a drought. There is the story of Nadia’s brother Jack and his budding love affair with the beautiful Perdita. And there is Katherine, a Mud Angel, a doctor and her father’s friend who devotes herself to helping Nadia.
While the story is an unusual one (I can’t think of any comparable plot), it is the descriptive use of language that makes any Beth Kephart book special. It is through this language that we get the feel of Florence, its alleyways, its cobblestone streets, its cathedrals, its myriad of markets blanketing the bridges over the Arno. It is through language that we understand Nadia’s frustration with herself, her fear that she might be going crazy. It’s through language that we understand all the different types of nests that birds construct (who knew?).
If you want a literary treat, read a Beth Kephart book (adult or young adult), my favorites being: One Thing Stolen, Nothing But Ghosts, Small Damages and You Are My Only….heck I love them all.