In Valerie Hobbs’ new novel, Defiance, we are introduced to two people from different worlds. Pearl is 94, born before television or computers or cell phones. She milks cows, grows tomatoes and writes poetry. She grew up in a time when reading was a pleasure and reading together could be romantic. But now she is going blind, though her milky blue eyes still see much in her new friend. Toby is 11, a skinny, bald boy with eyes too big for his face. He watches television, surfs the Web and gets scanned by magnetic resonance imaging. Toby has cancer. Yet, Toby muses, None of these differences mattered, they were friends just the same. Toby meets Pearl while spending time at a cabin in the country with his mom. Out riding his bike one day, he sees a crazy, witchy woman screaming at the crows threatening her garden. Toby ends up helping her around the house learning to milk Blossom the cow, tend her garden and read poetry. Both have given up on life in some way, and the friendship they share affects them deeply. Toby has noticed that a lump has recurred, but so horrifying were his treatments that he vows not to go through them again, knowing his life is at stake. Pearl’s life got too dark, not because of her incipient blindness, but because her husband was shot and killed coming out of a florist shop, carrying yellow tulips. A senseless thing, and so she stopped writing. Yet other poets’ words are still important to her and she shares them with Toby.
When Blossom dies and the fact of death is before them, Pearl and Toby come up with an unspoken challenge, to be warriors and do what must be done: it’s not Toby’s time to die, and Pearl must write her poetry. As Pearl says when teaching Toby how to read a poem, Poetry is all about stopping at the right places. Just because you come to the end of a line doesn’t mean you have to stop there. Stop at the periods, just like you do anywhere else. Now begin again. And so they begin again, realizing their lives are not at the proper stopping places yet.
This brief, poetic novel an ode to life, friendship and the power of words will linger for a long time in the minds of its readers.