Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release: November 12, 2013
Dear Mr. S. Harris,Ketchup Clouds delivers a story exclusively in letters, a writing style I adore. There is something so personal and engaging about reading a character's diary or notes, and stories told through the narrator's writing often seem more relatable than a normal first person narrative. Pitcher's unconventional debut not only meets the expectations outlined for its storytelling style, but excels in them, and Zoe's letters enhance every aspect of the story.
Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner. It's jam, not blood, though I don't think I need to tell you the difference. It wasn't your wife's jam the police found on your shoe…
Zoe has an unconventional pen pal-Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.
Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe's letters, but at least somebody will know her story-somebody who knows what it's like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.
Readers never get to meet Mr. Stuart Harris, but Zoe's musings about who he might be allow him to develop as a character anyway. The narrator writes about her idea of his cell, his connection with the wife he killed, and his feelings about his looming death date, and even though there is no way to tell whether her thoughts are accurate, they still create a complex hypothetical character who is just as real as the narrator. Mr. Harris thus contains an added layer, the questions regarding whether he is anything like the person Zoe believes him to be, which gives him an enigmatic quality that I loved.
Zoe's words also show the development in her relationship with her confession's recipient. Although he cannot write back, the protagonist grows more and more comfortable talking to the convict, as evidenced by her shifts in formality. Readers can see the space between they characters warming as Zoe cycles through addressing her pen pal as Mr. Harris, Stuart, and finally Stu, and makes her greetings and sign offs increasingly loving. Readers do not know if Mr. Harris is warming up to Zoe, but the fact that she feels friendly with him is enough to give the novel an affectionate tone.
Ketchup Clouds's narration style benefits Zoe's real-life relationship development as well as the the one she has with her pen pal. Going into the novel, readers know she met two brothers, fell for them both, betrayed one, and killed the other, but it is not that simple. Zoe's messy and nervous account of her own emotions does not give any clues as to which brother is which, keeping readers guessing until the end. The romance does contain some of the characteristic indecisiveness that will make many readers, including me, annoyed at Zoe, but a need to find out which boy dies makes the love triangle bearable.
Throughout it all, Zoe's absorbing letters expose the ravaging guilt pounding inside of her and illustrate the way it eats at her, but they also help readers cheer for her anyway. The protagonist's remorse makes her an empathetic character, and her subtle wit, which I have come to expect from British YA-English humor is apparently superior to American-makes her the kind of character one desperately wants to pull out of the book and befriend. Zoe encourages readers to fall in love with as she brightens the entire story with her charming anecdotes.
Enthralling, emotional, and as quirky as its title, Ketchup Clouds makes readers want to read uninterrupted until the end. It earned Pitcher a spot on my list of top international authors, and I cannot wait to read more from her.