The Wildness of Growing Up [Book Review]

           

             Francesca Lia Block’s The Waters & The Wild is as beautiful and evocative as her other books, moving and full of longing, with a surprise bittersweet ending.  The teen years are a time when belonging is essential, and the faerie/changeling metaphor is perfect to describe the despair of not-fitting-in.

Bee wakes up one morning to find her doppleganger, a look-alike who declares that she wants her life back, and promptly disappears.  In her search for answers, Bee befriends a brilliant nerd Haze, who thinks he may be the progeny of aliens, and Sarah, a plump would-be starlet who sings like Billie Holiday and believes she is a reincarnated slave girl.  The three new friends are powerful together and create their own tribe.  They pretend to be invisible to give them the moxy to crash the popular girl’s party. Finally, Bee belongs.

Or does she? Who is the look-alike girl whose life Bee may have unknowingly stolen?

            Block creates rich, dynamic characters and deftly shifts point-of-view to give voice to each of the friends. On the downside, the plot is a little thin.  The ending has not been seeded well; it bears the surprise of the unexpected and not a fulfillment. Still, Block writes beautifully as always and can get away with just about anything. The occasional poem inserts contribute to the theme and tone.  The optimistic resolution demonstrates that the despair of high school doesn’t last forever. This is a near-perfect book for outcasts and ‘alternative’ teens longing to belong.

 

Block, Francesca Lia. The Waters & The Wild. N.Y.: HarperTeen, 2009.

 

Ms. Block’s website: www.francescaliablock.com

 

 

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Evening Song of St. Patrick

To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear.  In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.

A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.

Evening Song of St. Patrick from “Selections of Irish Poetry” translated by Kuno Meyer

 

May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.

Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!

May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.

May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
 This poem is from Kuno Meyer’s Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry,  and the title he gives is “An Even Song” with the note: “Patrick sang this.” Just Patrick; Patrick is famous enough in all of Ireland to need no honorific.  Translater and editor Meyer notes that St. Patrick himself couldn’t have written this, not exactly, since this text dates from the 8th Century.  Literature has a long tradition of ascribing texts to more famous figures.

The first stanza begins by requesting the protection of the angels. The Celtic world was so mindful of the angels! Their poems and prayers are full of them.  And if my childhood home didn’t petition the angels per se, we still had a popular art print of a guardian angel guiding children beneath a shadowy, ominous, branchy tree. I’m reminded of an Orthodox prayer we say at various times, including night: “Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith . . .”

As for the second stanza, I’ve a mind to never request true visions; certain gifts from God may be humbly accepted, but not importuned.  Still, I have a special fondness for Psalm 16:7: “I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.”  Perhaps God comes to us at night because it is then when the noise of the day has ceased and we are finally able to truly listen.

And if the Celtic worldview was mindful of angels; it was likewise mindful of demons.  Like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a lorica prayer of protection which asks for shielding from many ills, including spells of wizards–one translation I have terms them ‘druids’!–this poem-prayer recognizes that demons also may visit our sleep.  I’ll tell you one thing: my bad dreams and nightmares decreased substantially–were practically eliminated–when I started saying prayers before bed, and even now when I awake from a bad dream, I think back to check if I had forgotten to pray before falling asleep.

“May our watch be holy.”  I think of the watchmen in Return of the King as popularized in the Peter Jackson movie. They watch, they wait. They light the signal fire to send a message, to request help, to warn of danger.
This Lord of the Rings segment in turn always reminds me of Bach’s Christmas cantata, 140, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Calling” [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme].  Which is itself from the Matthew 25, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Indeed, the Midnight Office in the Orthodox Church includes hymns based on this gospel reading. We want to be wise and watchful, wide awake. Why? Because our watch and our work is holy.

I’m a bit prone to “the winter blues”–Seasonal Affective Disorder. As sleep refreshes us to continue our holy, watchful tasks, may the natural contemplation of the winter months rejuvenate us to continue our work when the sun returns to warm the earth. Meanwhile, keep taking your Vitamin D.

“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Alexander Master,  ~1430, from the National Library of Netherlands. Public Domain

Fun Facts
For a discussion of the realism of Peter Jackson’s beacon-lighters, with quotations from the applicable text of Tolkien’s book, visit this Science Fiction and Fantasy Q & A page.

Wikipedia seems to give some pretty in-depth information about Bach’s Cantata 140.

 

When the Fey Envy Humans

The original Little Mermaid wants to become human, not to marry a Disnified prince, but because she longs for a human soul.  In my favorite Irish folktale, “The Priest’s Supper,” the fey ask a priest about their eternal destiny.

You and I secretly or not-so-secretly wish magic was real, but it’s  a curious quirk of many of the old tales: our favorite supernatural entities want to be human.

quotation from A Green And Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin

In Frederick S. Durbin’s A Green and Ancient Light, a young man’s Grandmother has an old family friend who is eventually revealed as Otherworldly.

Durbin’s book offers the same appeal as one of my childhood favorites, Bette Greene’s The Summer of My German Soldier, although his is a fantastic setting to Greene’s realism. Durbin’s nearly-teen protagonist helps rescue an enemy soldier in a conflict that is never named but feels like an alternate-Earth World War II. The appeal of these books is their exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to be “other.”  In both of these books, enemy combatants/reluctant soldiers have more humanity than some fellow citizens.

The family friend, the fey Mr. Girandole, eventually reveals that he loved Grandmother, but did not want to deprive her of the normal life of growing old with a person who ages beside you. As long as Grandfather was alive, Mr. Girandole kept a respectful distance.

At one point he confesses:

“I knew that humans have a gift that is not granted to us in Faery: this gift of giving the heart in devotion to one other soul, and walking through days of a limited number. This love of which your people are capable . . . It’s warmer than the warmest hearth in winter. It’s like a meteor, lighting the sky before it passes beyond” (215).

He offers an important insight regarding the importance and strength of love. Love is all the more valuable when offered, knowing that one day we will be separated from our beloved.

Cold days are upon us. Give thanks for your humanity this wintry season. And remember to love. Love deeply.

Love like a blazing hearth. Love cosmically, like a meteor.  In the words of the poet Kathleen Norris, may our love be

“starlike
and wild, as wide as grass,
solemn as the moon.” (from her poem “Little Girls in Church”)

Love like a human. Love with wild abandon. Love big enough to make the Good People envious.

 

Works Referenced

Durbin, Frederic S. A Green and Ancient Light. N.Y.: Saga Press, 2016.

Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. N.Y.: Bantam/Dell/Scholastic, 1973, 2006.

Norris, Kathleen. “Little Girls In Church” [poem] in Little Girls In Church. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

Who Is the Stolen Child? [Book Review]

Fleeing America and on a quest of last resort, Brigid returns to the family home in Ireland, to her uncle’s cottage on a fictional St. Brigid’s Island one mile from the Aran Islands off of Ireland’s west coast. She comes seeking a miracle child, and a man — or even a womb — is not necessary if she can find the holy saint’s blessed, or magical, well. To the islanders and perhaps the author, the pagan goddess Brigid blends indistinguishably into the Christian saint.

“The Yank” Brigid has a gift, the same gift her mother had which drove her from the island all those years before: hands that heal. The gift comes with a price, and as she gives health and life to others, time and time again Brigid’s womb compensates by expelling the new life within her until she loses even that organ itself. St. Brigid’s hidden well is her one hope, but the islanders don’t reveal their secrets to outsiders.

Stalwart Emer, although born to the island,  is as much an outsider as Brigid; she is a woman with hands that give hurt, doubt, and despair. As a friendship and love between the two women develops, passion and need and desperation blur, fueled and intensified by their respective secrets. Both Emer and Brigid think Brigid’s hands can heal Emer, but some life-wounds are too immense for either magic or love to cure.

Like Yeats’ poem, which lends itself to the title, the magic of the fairies lives still on the island. Who is the titular Stolen Child? Is it all the children cast from Brigid’s womb? Is it Brigid’s mother, Nuala, who fled the island with Brigid inside her? As a child Emer hoped to be stolen by the faeries but as a mother, she lives in hawkish overprotective terror that her son Niall will be taken.

Author Lisa Carey seamlessly adds to the trove of faerie lore with an organic authority as great as Lady Wilde’s. At the same time as I inwardly accuse her of inventing folklore, I wonder if perhaps she only offers one or another fairy story I haven’t yet encountered.  I bristle because the tale of St. Brigid’s cloak expanding into a land grant for her abbey was transferred from the Curragh to the fictional island; in Carey’s world, there is no Kildare, no Church of the Oaks. Likewise, the Gaelic response to hello which I’ve learned, Dia is Muire duit — literally “God and Mary be with you [too]” — has been reinvented into “Brigid and Mary be with you.” I’m open to the possibility of regional differences and readerly suspension-of-disbelief, but I can’t help wondering: in what else has the author misled the reader? At least on the copyright page she acknowledges this artistic license to which I object. Still, Carey’s writing is so compelling and her weaving of folklore into village life is so adept that generations from now, people may very well point to the legends in this novel as authentic.

This is a powerful, intense, and haunting book.  Emer’s gift of pain and Brigid’s gift of healing are foils, and any accusations of witchcraft could equally apply to a fear of forbidden love. Carey offers the worst kind of horror, the horror of human frailties. Deep inside us, we all carry Emer’s pain. In her darkest hour,

                            “[Emer] stays alone . . . with no ability to break the ugliness

she has begun, and not enough courage to ask someone,

her son, her sister, her lover, to help pull her out from

underneath the terrible weight of herself” (296).

On the island, beside Brigid’s healing well, there is too a cursing stone.

Domestic horror as much as magical realism underpin this historical fiction about the resettling of islanders to the Irish mainland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Carey’s novel reminds us that fairies aren’t cute benign tinkerbells. The darkness of Emer’s childhood only expands as the novel progresses. The reader is briefly lulled by the quaint Celtic island culture, but we should have known better.  In the end, St. Brigid herself offers unexpected hope and redemption.  The Stolen Child is a beautiful, dark, disturbing tour-de-force. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Bonus material: I especially appreciate the “Author’s Picks: Favorite Books by Irish Authors” and web links on the islands Inisbofin and Inishark which the author provides at the end of her book.

 

Craft notes: Author Lisa Carey deftly handles point-of-view and the gradual revelation of backstory. This is an expertly crafted novel, and I look forward to reading more of this author.

Halloween or Year-Round Monster Trucks [Book Review]

Brilliant concept! (Why didn’t I think of this?) After Halloween, for the rest of the year, monsters drive trucks and utility vehicles. The werewolf drives a back hoe to dig deep holes for bones and squeaky toys; the yeti drives a snow plow; the minotaur cleverly drives a BULL-dozer. The witch appropriately trades her broom in for a street-sweeper. And the mummy drives (can you guess?) the ambulance, of course! Kudos for including an ogre, yeti, and minotaur among the diverse monsters. Humorous illustrations by Misa Saburi. This is a gem of a book. I only wish there had been some literal oversized big-wheel monster trucks. A year-round book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary; not only for October.

Keller, Joy and Misa Saburi (illus).  Monster Trucks. New York, NY : Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

What I’m Reading Now (October 2017)

I’m reading Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth’s “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales” now.

Jacob Grimm said of Schonwerth, “No one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse.”

Here’s a great quotation from the introduction:

The Truth Behind True Thomas

 

               “True Thomas lay o’er yond grassy bank. . .”

“Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie,” 1852, from The British Museum.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a 13th Century Scottish laird who, so the story goes—popularized by professor F.J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads—one day met the Fairie Queen, was captivated by her beauty, and consented to accompany her to the Fair Lands—to Faerie. (The Faerie Queen was not exactly forthcoming about her destination him at first, but what else would you expect from Themselves?) She gives him a geas, a prohibition against speaking, and he serves her for seven years. And before being returned to the mortal realm, she gifts him with the power of True Speech. Ever after, he can only speak the truth.

By Katharine Cameron (1874–1965) – MacGregor, Mary; Cameron, Katharine (1874–1965), illus. (1908) Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children (Project Gutenberg), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8720495

The presence of the Faerie Queen would lead the average person to conclude that this tale is fiction, pure fabrication.  Not so fast. So many old tales have their origins in truth . . .

 

Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune was a real historical person. He lived in Ercildoune, a town now called Earlston, halfway between Edinbourgh and the border of England. Documents from 1294 prove he existed; he is listed as “Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.” Still standing today, although in ruins, is Rhymer’s Tower, his supposed home, (possibly a later building constructed on his land).

“Rhymer’s Tower, Earlston” by Hector MacQueen, 2010. CC2.     https://www.flickr.com/photos/hectormacq/4414896196/in/album-72157623449249579/

 

The Faerie Queen’s gift of True Speech brings to mind school tales of George Washington’s mythical “I cannot tell a lie.” Delving deeper into Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border reveals that Thomas’ truth is equated with prophetic vision. He is said to have predicted the death of King Alexander III, the Battle of Bannockburn, and the union of the English and Scottish crowns—this last did not occur until  1603.

 

I’ve written previously about Thomas the Rhymer and the Christian symbolism in this tale, and the intersections of history and folklore equally fascinate me.

 

I’m pleased to report that my short story “True Thomas” has been reprinted in Fae Wings and Hidden Things, an anthology about faeries.

 

 

Further Reading

F.J. Child’s ballad #37 “Thomas Rymer”

Look at this! There’s a Friends of Thomas the Rhymer local history group in Earlston!

The Legend of Thomas The Rhymer and the Queen of the Fairies

Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

“Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune” from Scottish Literary Locations.