Devil and the Bluebird starts out as a folksy road trip with a girl Odysseus whose journey takes her along the roads of modern America. But it quickly becomes clear that Blue isn't trying to find her way home — she's trying to piece together a new one.
Seven years after losing her mother to cancer, Blue meets a devil at the crossroads and strikes a bargain: her voice, in exchange for a pair of boots that will guide her across the country to her missing sister. She sets out with only her magic boots and her mother's guitar, jumping from one state to the next by any means she can manage. And the devil keeps appearing, to not-so-gently nudge Blue on her way, never letting her get comfortable with new friends or hang on to useful gifts for more than a few days.
There are shades of the original Odyssey in Blue's journey as she faces monsters who must be outwitted and lonely souls who are reluctant to let her go on her way, but the best comparison might be to another adaptation of the tale — the film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Both take us on a hero's journey through a strange land, and both blur the lines between harsh reality and a backwoods sort of magical realism. Blue uses her guitar to get out of (and into) a wide array of trouble, and a backbone of folk music and Americana runs straight through Devil, making the story feel like an old-timey ballad.
You might think that a book whose basic premise relies on this romantic sort of folk music magic would be tempted to gloss over the hardships of being a teen runaway, but Blue faces far more mundane threats than supernatural ones. She struggles to stay warm and fed, and her constant fear and discomfort keep this from being the kind of book that makes running away from home look like fun (I'm looking at you, Boxcar Children).
The assortment of people that Blue meets along the way shows that author Jennifer Mason-Black has a real understanding of the many reasons teens sometimes find themselves on the road alone. A transgender runaway fleeing a cruel family, street kids forced into hurting others to survive, a free-spirited home-schooler looking for purpose: Each of these fellow teens provides a lesson for Blue without feeling like the subject of an after-school special.
The twists and turns that Blue's journey takes are not predictable or standard, though eventually they begin to seem more than a little twisted up with some kind of destiny (and as it turns out, more than one devil). When she eventually finds herself in a place where she must confront the truth about why her family fell apart, it feels like we were headed there all along without knowing it.
Even though the road trip genre goes back all the way to Homer and has been rehashed a thousand times, Blue's journey feels fresh and surprising. It conjures up a cold wind, a warm hearth, and the sweet jangle of guitar strings.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is an editor at Goblin Fruitand can be found discussing folklore and pop culture on theFakelore Podcast.