The Immortality of Love: Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-9)


What makes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women immortal, when as a nineteenth-century moral story for the young it should properly have been forgotten long ago? A portion of the reading population might like to forget it, as Elaine Showalter points out in her illuminating introduction to my Penguin Classics edition: “in male literature. . . Little Women stands as a code term for sentimentality and female piety. . . . In a typically dismissive critical judgment of the 1950s, Edward Wagenknecht declared that Little Women ‘needs — and is susceptible of — little analysis.’ ” Yet it is still read and loved, at a time when the mores of American society have changed almost beyond recognition from those of Alcott’s day. Clearly, more is at work here than mere “sentimentality and female piety.”

As a child, I was simply entranced by the adventures of those four wonderfully realized characters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When Alcott decided to draw on her own life to create the moral tale her publisher requested, she feared the result would be dull. The reverse was the case, as the homely details of family life are what lend the story its irresistible charm and vitality. Who can forget Jo selling her hair, Amy bringing forbidden pickled limes to school, Meg succumbing to the temptation to dress up in “frills and furbelows,” or Beth’s joyful reaction to the gift of a piano? The girls’ idiosyncrasies and foibles are described with a wry humor that saves the narrative from becoming overly sweet, and their relationships with one another are spiced with realistic quarrels and quirks as well as love and tenderness.

When I went back to Little Women as an adult, I did find the moralizing aspect to intrude somewhat, but not as much as one might expect. With her unfailing perception and equanimity, Marmee is an idealized quasi-divine mother figure whose words of wisdom bring each episode to neat closure, especially in the first half of the book, which explicitly takes its theme and direction from the Christian precepts of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet the undogmatic, sensible nature of most of these lessons saves them from being only examples of that dreaded “female piety.” The underlying message is to be true to one’s inner core, and to find value in the lasting treasures of life: integrity, self-knowledge, human connections. Though the trappings of time and culture may change, this moral journey is universally valid, and surely a key to the book’s continuing relevance.

Meanwhile, the marvelously unconventional character of Jo, Alcott’s own alter ego, also plays a large part in its enduring appeal. With her exuberant speech and behavior, disregard of propriety, and literary creativity, she points toward a later time when women would be able to more fully express themselves and their potentialities. For modern readers, it can be disappointing when Jo’s youthful urges and artistic ambitions, along with those of her sisters, are partly squashed in favor of the ultimate female consummation of marriage and motherhood. But her spirit remains unquenched for readers and writers who have found in her a soul-sister, an inspiration and a companion when “genius burns.”

Opposite to Jo is gentle Beth, whose death is one of the other indelible experiences of reading Little Women in childhood. Saccharine Victorian death scenes are notorious, but Alcott’s sincere depth of feeling born of her own sorrow and loss gives this one a poignant simplicity, and I still cannot read it without sobbing. “Love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go,” Beth says. For me, this “belief in the immortality of love” is the gift and the legacy of Little Women, one for which I am forever grateful.

Classic MG/YA Challenge


A Christmas Gift: I Saw Three Ships

Elizabeth Goudge, I Saw Three Ships (1969)


Just in time for Christmas, the wonderful folks at David R. Godine, Publisher have reprinted their edition of Elizabeth Goudge’s story I Saw Three Ships. In this brief tale set in the West Country of England a couple of centuries ago, we are introduced to the irrepressible orphan Polly, who knows she has heard angels climb the stairs on Christmas Eve; her very proper maiden aunts, Dorcas and Constantia, who yet harbor secret dreams and longings; and three wise men of a rather unexpected sort. How they all come together is Christmas magic of the very best kind.

As fans of Elizabeth Goudge may expect, there is a marvelously evoked historical setting, with a lovably mischievous child character, adults of varying degrees of eccentricity, and a contented cat. There is charm and mystery and humor, and a hint of something beyond the everyday world. At appropriate moments, the old English carol named in the title enlivens the text with its jaunty tune — a different one than most Americans may be familiar with, so it’s good that words and music are included at the end. The numerous pen-and-ink drawings by Margot Tomes capture the early-nineteenth-century atmosphere perfectly, and Godine’s usual fine production values enhance the book’s appeal even further. A small paperback (about 5 by 7 inches large and 60 pages long), with a heavy, durable matte cover and French flaps, it would slip nicely into a large stocking. If you’re looking for a gift for an older child — or adult! — who enjoys historical fiction by the likes of Joan Aiken or Leon Garfield, this would be a fine choice.

For those who already know and love the books of Elizabeth Goudge, or would like to discover a splendid but often sadly underrated author, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week from April 24 to 30. Keep your eye on these pages for further details in the New Year, and enjoy whatever you choose for your holiday reading.


Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

Diana Wynne Jones readalong
UK paperback, Mammoth

We’ve arrived at the fifth of November, known as Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night in the UK, and the last day of Witch Week according to the book of that title by Diana Wynne Jones — which, appropriately, has been our readalong selection for this event. This being the first time I’ve hosted anything like this, I’m curious to find out whether anybody else has actually been reading along! Did you read Witch Week for the first, or fifth, or twentieth time? What were your impressions, whether this is a new book for you, or an old friend? Did you have favorite scenes or characters, or were there perhaps aspects of the book that disturbed or puzzled you? If you were rereading, how has your experience of the book changed over time? Please comment below. . . and readers, be aware that spoilers are not prohibited from here on out.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Witch Week, but at least one of them was to a rapt audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I know that when I first read it I was much closer to my own school experience, which in many ways paralleled that of Nan Pilgrim in the book. Like her, I was pudgy, hopeless in gym, disdained and sometimes tortured by the popular kids, and given to describing things. Thus I sympathized with Nan even as I laughed at her predicaments, such as when she thought she was climbing the rope in gym class when actually she was just making hopeful motions with her eyes closed, or when she vividly described the horrible school food while sitting next to the principal. I felt her delight when she found that she did have a talent, even if it was for forbidden witchcraft, and her vindication when she was able to transform that talent and the whole world along with it, through the creative power of storytelling.

But there is more to the book than the parts that resonate with me personally, and when I re-read it this time the darker elements came more to the fore. Witch Week, which was originally published in 1982, created a magical dystopia before it was fashionable to do so, and I think that current writers in the genre could learn much from its construction. Its depiction of a world like our own, with one important difference — witchcraft is both common and punishable by death — is subtly horrific, forming a weighty counterpoint to the comic scenes. These play upon themes we all know from our school days, like useless journal-writing exercises and teachers who think their private affairs are invisible to their students. But these schoolkids are not just threatened with being sent to detention or even being menaced by bullies; they are in serious danger of losing their lives.

bonfire night fireworks
An oddly appropriate Guy Fawkes scene (Historical Society)

Witch Week is in many ways the “anti-Harry Potter,” as Emma Jane Falconer astutely describes it in her DWJ zine, and its portrayal of evil is far more nuanced and real than the cartoon villainy of Voldemort — perhaps coming too close to home for some readers. Maybe that’s why when I looked for some other reviews, I found many that called it unpleasant and depressing. This is partly due to the fact that Charles Morgan, the second main child character in the book, is in danger of losing not just his life but his very soul as he turns toward the darker side of magic. I think that readers who are merely repelled by him are missing the point, though. A society that generates fear and hatred, and suppresses the creative human spirit, will ultimately destroy itself. Charles is a victim of that society, and his ultimate self-transformation is as important as Nan’s, though less obvious — it may be that some readers miss it altogether, in the rush of the story’s conclusion.

For me, rereading Witch Week was a delight as usual. I remain impressed by Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to create a story with so many different layers, combining farce and tragedy in a way I believe to be quite rare. Plus I still adore Nan, and cheer for her as she finally gets to ride (awkwardly) on a splendidly eccentric broomstick. Her triumph enriches all of us.

(If I haven’t mentioned that DWJ’s well-known recurring character Chrestomanci comes into the story, perhaps it’s because I find him more peripheral than in the other novels in which he appears. He plays a decidedly supporting role, even though it’s essential to the plot. If this is your first Chrestomanci book and you are a bit baffled by him, do seek out the others. It will all make sense, I promise.)

But enough from me! What are your thoughts? Please share them below, and remember that you can also link up your own reviews at the master post. Plus, don’t neglect to enter the giveaway before midnight tonight for a chance to win the above-mentioned DWJ zine! Tomorrow, a summary and preview of next year.

My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased

I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:

Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement “She was a witch” turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen’s world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat’s admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the “great changes” in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat’s world, but it’s not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Diana Wynne Jones novel
The latest British edition

These two threads — the building of an alternate world in which magic is a part of daily life, and the theme of a young person’s need to discover his own strengths and free himself from unhelpful bonds — make a marvelous blend, a tale that is wonderfully fanciful, entertaining, and imaginative, yet grounded in serious concerns of the human heart. And the deadpan style masks a wickedly perceptive sense of humor. As I read more of Jones’s work, I found this blend in book after book, always with new twists and new worlds to explore, and always with the same sense of humor rooted not in cheap laughs but in a rare kind of wisdom.

Maybe that’s why of the authors Robin McKinley recommended, Diana Wynne Jones is the only one who became a favorite of mine, far eclipsing McKinley herself in the end. She is a writer of comedy in the true sense: a way of looking at life that, while it sees what is absurd and out of place with clear eyes, also uplifts us with the knowledge of what is noble and enduring in the human spirit. While it might seem presumptuous to compare her to the greatest writer of comedies in English, Shakespeare, in her chosen realm of children’s fantasy novels, she’s not so far from the top. She has her flaws and weak points, but at her height of creative invention, I don’t know anyone who compares to her.

While you may see Charmed Life publicized as part of the “Chrestomanci series” (along with The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, and The Pinhoe Egg), it is not a series in the conventional sense and the order of reading is not terribly important. Charmed Life is a good place to start, though, because in it Jones introduces the character of Chrestomanci — a role rather than a name, an enchanter powerful enough to ensure that lesser magic-workers follow the rules in his world; it also introduces the important idea of “related worlds,” alternate realities that have split off when an event in history could have taken different paths. I’m not going to go into the plot more than that, because I want you to discover its surprises for yourself; and if I haven’t managed to intrigue you by now, I give up.

Five weeks from today, I’ll be hosting a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and a read-along of another Chrestomanci book, Witch Week, from October 31 to November 6, 2014. Although Charmed Life is not one of the official featured books of that week, if you’re thinking of joining us, you might want to check it out if you haven’t already. It was where I began, and I still think it’s a good place to start. From there, you’re going to find many magical worlds to explore.

Review copy source: Personal collection

A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book


Five of a Kind: All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family (1951)

Sydney Tayor family story

I don’t know why I never read All-of-a-Kind Family when growing up, but I was reminded that I needed to thanks to The Midnight Garden’s Classic MG/YA Readalong. I was very glad to finally get to know this beloved account of five girls growing up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.

Often compared to other period family stories like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family has far less conflict than either. The girls get scarlet fever, but nobody dies; there are no wolves, panthers or bears to menace their cozy home. Each chapter is a small domestic drama centering around incidents that may seem trivial to an adult — a lost library book, a trip to the beach, a search for a birthday present for Papa — yet are exactly the kinds of events that loom large in the life of a sheltered child. With her loving descriptions of festivals such as Purim and Passover, and of settings from street markets to Coney Island, Taylor brings us into the heart of a Jewish family with sensitivity and grace, and evokes a vanished way of life that was full of poverty and hardship but also rich in warmth and human connection.

There is little indication of the social struggles going on in the wider world. It’s stated several times that the family is poor, but though their food is simple they don’t go hungry, and they enjoy penny candy and special Sabbath meals. They don’t complain about the hand-me-down clothes that make them “all of a kind,” or about having to all sleep in one room. Unlike Jo March and Laura Ingalls, they seldom long for things they cannot have. Under the wise guidance of ever-serene Mama and hardworking Papa, they live contentedly and unquestioningly, and larger troubles of prejudice, class consciousness, or impending war do not disturb them. Occasionally the adults’ perspective is taken, with its heavier load of cares and responsibilities, but the focus is still on problems of the home (getting the girls to do their chores, or dealing with a spell of contrariness). In this small-scale narrative, it’s the details of daily life that fascinate.

In real life, Sydney Taylor was the middle child, “Sarah,” of the book (she changed her name as a teenager). She originally told these stories of her childhood to her own daughter, who was a lonely only child, then wrote them down and forgot about the manuscript until her husband submitted it for a literary award. It won the award, and the rest is history.

Written simply and unpretentiously, without literary flourishes but with a storyteller’s sure sense for the ear of her child audience, All-of-a-Kind Family retains its appeal for a new generation of readers. The four sequels have just been taken up this year by the new Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint, which is a good thing — once you’ve met this family you won’t want to say goodbye.

60th Anniversary article in The Tablet
An article by Lizzie Skurnick 


The Magic of Friendship: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

E.L. Konigsburg, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967)

Konigsburg children's classic friendshipRealizing that I’ve read many, but not all, of E.L. Konigsburg’s fantastically-titled novels, I’ve decided to try to read all fourteen of them in publication order…no deadline. If you’ve any interest in reading along, let me know!

First up is Jennifer, Hecate (etc.), a book that I loved as a child. I identified with the protagonist and narrator, fifth-grader Elizabeth, because I also had trouble making friends after moving to a new town. Unlike her, though, I was not lucky enough to meet the mysterious and fascinating Jennifer, who may or may not be a witch. Elizabeth’s apprenticeship in witchcraft, and its transformation into true friendship, is the central thread of the story.

I accepted the “magical” elements without question as a child; they were simply a source of excitement and mystery. As an adult, though, I found myself pondering the role of witchcraft in the book. For some readers, it may seem strange or alarming that Elizabeth so unhesitatingly accepts Jennifer’s dictates (which, in spite of her admiration for the evil witches of Macbeth, are relatively harmless and often quite funny). But when a person feels powerless against some aspect of fate, it’s tempting to think that destiny can be changed through inner training; this is what Jennifer is actually offering to Elizabeth. I think that both girls actually know that their “magic” goals can’t come to fruition, but as sometimes happens in childhood, they become trapped in the play and don’t know how to get out of it. Konigsburg resolves this problem in a somewhat awkward and abrupt way, but the underlying truth of it remains.

In fact, there is more to this brief story than meets the eye. Barely mentioned in the text (though clear from Konigsburg’s illustrations) is the fact that Elizabeth is white and Jennifer is black, possibly the only black child in the entire school. Elizabeth has been lonely for a couple of months; how long has Jennifer been alone and friendless? What has she had to endure, that has caused her to find refuge in arcane knowledge and esoteric rituals? These questions are never overtly stated or even hinted at, but at the book’s publication in 1967 they would perhaps come more readily to mind than today. Even now, they form a powerful subtext that makes it a real achievement when the girls are finally able to drop their assumed roles and just be ordinary friends.

Though it’s dated in many ways, from children curtsying at the Halloween assembly to mothers unquestioningly supplying raw eggs in milkshakes, what keeps this book timeless is that Konigsburg understands children. She knows their sufferings and their sources of pleasure, their pettiness and their magnanimity, their vulnerability and their resilience. She also knows that they love to laugh, and her idiosyncratic sense of humor is one of the great pleasures of this book. Even when writing about a difficult subject, Konigsburg never loses her sense of hope and trust in the possibilities of the human spirit. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her work, and discovering more of her insights into the journey of growing up.


Out of the Gutter: Smith

Leon Garfield, Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket (1967)

But there was great determination in him. Each fresh disaster he endured seemed to strengthen his bond with the document…and whatever it might contain. In a way, it seemed to be payment in advance.

Leon Garfield historical

“Dickensian” is a word freely tossed about in describing a certain strain of literature, but Smith is one of the rare books that actually deserves it. (It’s no accident that another of the author’s works is a completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood). A singularly stylish adventure story for young readers, set in the raucous milieu of eighteenth century London, it seems less an imitation of the master than a natural extension of his work, and that of earlier comic novelists like Fielding and Smollett.

Twelve-year-old Smith is an accomplished pickpocket, but he gets more than he bargained for when he takes some papers from an old country gentleman just moments before he’s murdered by two sinister men in brown. Smith wants to know what is in the dangerous documents that must be so supremely valuable…but he can’t read! And so he sets out on a determined quest for knowledge, which takes him to places beyond his dreams (or nightmares): a fine gentleman’s house, where he is memorably washed for the first time perhaps since birth; Newgate prison, from which he finds a most unusual mode of escape; Finchley Common, where he takes part in an exciting chase worthy of his most revered highwaymen heroes.

Smith‘s pace never slackens for a moment, as the reader becomes as desperate as Smith himself to know what is in those dratted documents, but Garfield keeps us guessing till the very end. He writes as if he were discovering the story rather than creating it, and it’s this exuberant, conversational style that redeems the absurdly improbable plot, and brings a true comic sensibility to what otherwise might have been a grim and somber tale. Here’s a sample, from Smith’s early attempts to find someone who will teach him to read:

Very educated gentlemen, the debtors. A man needs to be educated to get into debt. Scholars all. The first Smith tried was a tall, fine-looking gentleman who, though still in leg-irons, walked like he owned the jail — as well he might, for his debts could have bought it entire.

He smiled; he was never at a loss for a smile. . . which was, perhaps, why he was there; when a man can’t pay what he owes, a smile is a deal worse than nothing!

“Learn us to read, mister!” said Smith, humbly.

The fine debtor stopped, looked — and sighed.

“Not in ten thousand years, my boy!” and, before Smith could ask him why, he told him.

“Be happy that you can’t! For what will you get by it? You’ll read and fret over disasters that might never touch you. You’ll read hurtful letters that might have passed you by. You’ll read warrants and summonses where you might have pleaded ignorance. You’ll read of bills overdue and creditors’ anger — where you might have ignored it all for another month! Don’t learn to read, Smith! Oh! I implore you!”

Then the gentleman drifted, smiling, away, with his back straight, his head held high — and his ankles jingling.

There are other rollicking historical novels for young people out there; I already know and love those by Joan Aiken, Philip Pullman, and Lloyd Alexander, to name a few. Garfield’s distinctive narrative voice was new to me, though, and I found it charming and intriguing. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of this author’s work; he deserves a second look.

A Folio Society edition is also available

Review copy source: Print book from library
1987 Phoenix Award Winner
Classics Club List #5


Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).  

Today’s Armchair BEA theme is middle-grade/YA fiction, so I’m taking a second look at a YA science fiction classic. This was the recipient of the 1990 Phoenix Award and has been praised by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry, so it quickly rose to the top of my list.

Enchantress from the Stars is a space-age fable that takes on some knotty questions of truth, belief, freedom and sacrifice. It posits the existence of human-like beings at three stages of evolution: members of the Federation, who have advanced beyond war and exploitation and have developed psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis; citizens of the Empire, who have advanced technology that they are using to take over other planets; and the medieval-stage people of Andrecia, a planet in the process of being colonized.

The Federation’s goal is to preserve the freedom of less-evolved civilizations, to allow them to continue to progress on their individual paths without annihilating each other (on the planetary level…it seems they are free to have wars and commit injustices with other people and civilizations on the same planet). To do this, specially trained agents interfere selectively in situations like the one on Andrecia, appearing within the native belief system as beings from a world of mystery and enchantment. To give the account of one such mission, Engdahl uses the device of narrating it from three alternating points of view. The primary voice is that of young Elana, who tells her own story of stowing away on a Federation mission to save the endangered inhabitants of Andrecia, with life-changing consequences for all concerned. A third-person narrative thread follows Jarel, a doctor whose view of the Empire is being soured by the treatment of the “natives” who have the misfortune to be in the way on their new planetary colony. The final part is narrated in classic folktale style, telling of Georyn, a woodcutter’s youngest son who sets out to slay the dragon that is menacing the land.

It’s an ingenious notion, and Engdahl plays it out well, with all the shifts in perspective smoothly and convincingly done. (Ostensibly the entire book is actually being written by Elana as her report to the Federation following the mission, which would seem to qualify her for a career as a novelist if space exploration doesn’t work out.) Each incident that seems magical to the Andrecians has a logical explanation from another point of view. The rock-chewing “dragon” is actually an Imperial machine that’s working to clear the land for the colonists, for example, and the magical trials that Georyn goes through are engineered by the Enchantress (Elana) and her colleagues to strengthen him for his task of frightening away the invaders. Things get complicated as Elana becomes more involved, and more emotionally invested, in the mission than she had ever expected to be. She wonders about the ethics of manipulating Georyn in this way, while the necessity to conceal the very existence of the Federation from the Imperial colonists (to avoid their gaining access to ideas and technology they are not yet ready for) becomes increasingly fraught.

I don’t have a strong memory of this book from reading it as a child or young teen. I think I liked it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — unlike A Wrinkle in Time, which is somewhat similar in using space travel as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, and is engraved on my heart. Reading Enchantress again today, I was distracted by questions about the plausibility of the whole idea, which of course is fatal to a fable, as well as bothered by the oversimplified opposition between science and magic, which implies that all numinous or magical experiences can be made mundane by a shift in perspective. I was also uncomfortable with Georyn and Elana’s relationship — to him, she’s something like a goddess, while to her he’s like a highly intelligent pet; yet they are supposed to fall in love. Perhaps this is meant to be a comment on how love can reach across boundaries, or obviate the need to actually know a person, but I found it hard to swallow.

Quibbles aside, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, which is well-written and thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with all the thoughts in it. It might strike just the right chord with you, as it has done with many readers through the years, and could spark discussion and contemplation of many interesting questions. Although I didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy it, I had to think hard about why — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1990 Phoenix Award winner


Harriet’s Sister: A Long Way From Verona

Jane Gardam, A Long Way from Verona (1971)

Can you believe Harriet the Spy is 50 years old? Yes, she first made her appearance in 1964. In honor of this anniversary here’s a recent reread at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy that goes through the whole book with chapter-by-chapter reactions, ending up with a more considered review. For those of us who grew up with her, it’s a fun way to remember and reconsider some of our own experiences with the inimitable Harriet M. Welsch.

Since that’s been done quite thoroughly, I want to write instead about another character who could be Harriet’s sister in spirit: Jessica Vye in Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona (winner of the 1991 Phoenix Award). Verona was published just a few years after Harriet, and though the setting is England during the Second World War rather than the Upper East Side in the early 60s, the rebellious and questioning mood of the time informs both books. Harriet and Jessica are both smart, quirky misfits who want to become writers. They are similar in how they observe and comment on the world around them, from the ridiculous antics of incomprehensible adults to the perplexing behavior of their peers.

For example, here’s a passage where Jessica and her friends decide to challenge the local teashop to actually give them some tea (this is during rationing, remember).

There was a thin woman behind the counter in a lavender overall reading a magazine. Now and then she gave a colossal great sniff and turned a page. Florence gave me a push. ‘Go on then,’ she said. I coughed.

The woman didn’t look up. She turned a page and flexed her feet and I coughed again.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘may we have some tea?’

‘Eh?’ she said.

‘Tea,’ I said.

‘Tea?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Like it says.’

‘Well I don’t know,’ she said. She looked hard at the card. It was pinned to an archway where two long red plush curtains were caught back in the middle at the top of the three steps.

[. . .]

It grew very quiet.

‘Look,’ said Helen after a while, ‘why did you want to come out to tea? I can’t see what you wanted.’ She has narrow hands and a narrow face, Helen Bell. She is good at playing the piano. On the whole I don’t like people who are always playing the piano. They have mean little mouths.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s an outing, isn’t it? It’s nice. It’s something to do at the end of term.’ [. . .] We’d had this all out before I may say, we’d discussed it for hours. We’d got permission–letters from our mothers and a shilling each and everything. The way they plugged on at things in this school! It takes them ages to get on and do anything. There is a lot of Danish blood on this part of the coast my father says, and the Danes tend to stand about rather. After all, look at Hamlet.

In her first novel, Gardam, who has since produced more than 20 acclaimed works of fiction for children and adults, is already an accomplished and subtle writer. She suggests rather than explaining; for example, when a major trauma hits Jessica, we are left to infer for ourselves what happened, and how she learns and changes throughout the story is hinted at rather than stated outright. This can make reading her story challenging, but this style (which Gardam perfects even more in later books) seems an attempt to portray the way most of us really think and understand the world: not in tidy narrative packages, but in glimpses, fragmentary experiences that we may only later put together and comprehend. Gardam’s ability to approach this, without being annoyingly opaque or archly “experimental,” is a sign of her genius, in my opinion.

Jessica is older than Harriet, closer to the threshold of adulthood, and the wartime setting, with the constant risk (and occasional fact) of being bombed, obviously brings in more serious aspects. However, both books have a deep emotional impact that comes from the central characters being so finely drawn, so real and so human. As we feel and think and suffer with them, we learn what it means to be true to oneself, and that that is the only thing that really matters. It’s an important message for any age.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Jane Gardam says of her writing process, “It’s about getting to know a character and loving them, I think.” While Harriet has legions of fans already, I hope that many more readers young and old will have the pleasure of getting to know and love Jessica Vye.

Thanks to Europa Editions for their reissue of this and some of Gardam’s other early novels; she’s a wonderful writer who deserves more attention.

1991 Phoenix Award winner
Midnight Garden Classic YA/MG Challenge