When you’ve read over 100 Girls Underground books as I have, a lot of them start to blend together – naturally, since they all follow a very similar pattern. Unfortunately, some just follow the script by rote, without seeming to have a truly unique story to tell. So it’s always a pleasure to read something a little different, like The Path of Names by Ari Goelman. The focus on Jewish mysticism was an interesting and unusual setting for what was also a very solid GU plot. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to see a book aimed at pre-adolescents covering topics like the secret names of God, the Kabbala, golems, and such, with seriousness. And on a personal note, it was fun to read something set in a Jewish camp, which echoed some of my own experiences growing up (oh yes, the pre-dinner song/prayer, I remember that!).
Dahlia, 13, is into math and magic tricks more than anything, but her parents force her to spend three weeks at a Jewish summer camp in order to help her become more social. Right off the bat, she starts seeing the ghosts of two little girls, and having strangely vivid dreams of being a male yeshiva student in the 1940’s (many of the chapters are told from this man’s point of view, as he discovers the 72nd name of God and is pursued by members of a secret society intent on using this holy word for nefarious purposes). After finding an old book filled with writings on mysticism and drawings of mazes, Dahlia enlists some other campers (her companions) and eventually her brother (a counselor) to help her unravel the mystery of how all these things are connected, and what they have to do with the mysterious hedge maze and the caretaker who guards it. There is an initial feint as to the identity of the adversary, who is only revealed for certain towards the end. Several campers get trapped in the magic of the maze, and Dahlia must rescue them, and the dead girls, all on her own. She exposes the adversary’s fraud, tricks him using her well-practiced sleight-of-hand, and soundly defeats him, rescuing everyone.
An interesting side note: unlike the picture on the cover, the “maze” in the story is actually a unicursal labyrinth – the kind that has a single path weaving back and forth to the center, used by many spiritual traditions since its origins in ancient Greece. Ironically, the genesis of the Girls Underground idea was with the movie Labyrinth, which actually features a multicursal maze.