Gillian French’s fifth young adult novel, “Sugaring Off,” is a love song to winter in the backwoods of New England. It’s as infused with the sweet flavor of the outdoors as the maple syrup made in the protagonist’s backyard sugarhouse. The actual romance, between two damaged teenagers, is not so sweet. Like the book itself, it starts as a tough-yet-tender story. But shortly before the end, it veers off course into something darker.

Though French lives in Maine, she has set her book in in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where 17-year-old Owl lives with her Aunt Holly, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, and Uncle Seth, an injured war veteran. We care deeply about each struggling member of this family: Holly, trying to come to terms with her Native American heritage, Seth with his war wound, but most of all Owl, who has her own physical challenge and past to confront.

Owl is partially deaf as a result of a violent childhood trauma that sent her father to prison. Her fiercely protective uncle has raised her ever since, imbuing her with his love of the woods and his knowledge of the natural world. Their special bond is evident from their first scene together:

“Seth … turns back to Owl, switching to the unspoken wavelength they share, cultivated from the day he and Holly brought her back to Waits Mountain, a seven-year-old with a four-inch fracture in her skull and a stunned terror of her brave new world without sound. Want to come along? his expression says.”

This close-knit family and their fragile world are threatened by two events: the release of Owl’s father from prison, and the arrival of Cody, a neighbor’s grandson whom Seth has taken on to help with the sugaring off. The father wants to reconnect with Owl, while Cody is threatening simply by his very presence. A refugee from the “big city” and its evil influences, he exudes an aura of danger from the moment we meet him.

Owl first encounters Cody in their woods, where she is watching over a fox about to give birth to kits. In classic meet-cute style, she takes an instant dislike to him after he mocks her for suspecting him of setting traps for the foxes.


French is masterful at conveying the simmering sexual tension between the two broody teens as they help Seth gather maple sap (the old-fashioned way, in buckets) and run it through the complicated evaporator and bottling processes. When Cody scoffs at the small-town, rural setting – “a place people come to get buried ” – Owl counters that it’s a place where “Everybody needs each other,” and also “a place to heal.” She cautiously invites him into her world, letting him watch her foxes, taking him snowshoeing and rock climbing, exploring the wreck of an abandoned train. At each step, they share a bit more of their traumatic childhoods and gradually lower their guards. The blossoming of this relationship is tender and hopeful.

But then, Cody’s ugly past catches up to him, derailing both the budding love affair and the course of the novel itself. This dark turn is precipitated by an inexplicable murder followed by an action-packed chase scene into the snowy mountains. While it certainly ramps up the tension and the stakes, the sudden shift in tone has little foreshadowing and seems disconnected to the rest of the story.

Despite this flaw, it is still a gorgeous novel, its carefully crafted prose style alternating between lush and lyrical and lean and staccato. French often disdains the use of pronouns and complete sentences, as in Owl’s description of fox traps:

“Know how they work?” Sets her pad down. “Spring-loaded. Fox smells the bait, steps on the pan” – she slaps his hand between both of hers, grips tightly, feels his forearm muscles stiffen, resisting – “jaws slam down her paw.”

Cody holds her gaze. “Yeah? Cuts it off?”

Shakes her head. “Plain jaws.”

But then you get a description like this, about her growing feelings for Cody: “Yesterday in the trees began her metamorphosis, a slow discovery of wings folded to her back, not yet fully open—and with every step she knows she might take flight …”

“Sugaring Off” excels as a tale about the importance of nature, deep family bonds and a sense of place. By the end of the novel, the strength those things impart to Owl enables her to let her to decide who deserves to be part of her life.

Amy MacDonald is an author and freelance writer living in Portland. She may be reached at

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.