Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Book Review Club: December

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@Barrie Summy

Jingle, jingle! Wondering why it's 50 degrees one day, 20 the next? I bet the Ice Dragon is involved. Read on . . .

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By Gregory Maguire
Candlewick 2014

Boy, there’s hardly anything more entertaining than watching a talented author make free with a character we think we already know. Gregory Maguire is among the handiest practitioners of that craft, retelling the tales of an ugly stepsister, Snow White, and, of course, various Oz characters. (He wrote WICKED. Heard of it?)

This time, his partner in madness is Baba Yaga, the witch of Russian folklore whose house walks on chicken legs and who has been known to eat children. There are guest appearances by the Firebird and the Ice Dragon—also Russian folk figures—and Myandash, a character in Saami tales.

Among scads of literary Baba Yagas, Maguire’s earthy, irreverent version retires the jersey. She warps time, fools with the weather, has a house that keeps re-inventing itself and a kitten who keeps the insults flying. (Witch: “I think I’ve kept my figure, don’t you?” Kitten: “Who else would want it?”) She’s lived lots of places at lots of times, confusing her Tsarist Russian listeners with references to vitamins and Emily Dickinson.

“I’ve stepped sideways out of life,” one of our heroines says, watching the witch in action. “I am life,” Baba Yaga replies. “You’ve stepped nearer. For good or for ill, for inspiration or indigestion, I don’t know yet. We’ll see how you get on.”

The tale begins with a “prince and the pauper” switcheroo: In a slapstick mishap, Elena, a dirt-poor girl from a starving village, changes places with Ekaterina (“Cat”), a wealthy, well-educated cosmopolitan on her way to St. Petersburg by private train, intending to meet and possibly woo the Tsar’s godson. She has a present for the Tsar: a Faberge egg that becomes one of the book’s important magical objects (as do the Firebird’s egg, the teeth of the Ice Dragon, and two sets of matryoshka “nesting” dolls).

The focus of the tale switches back and forth between Elena and Cat. Oddly, neither is particularly compelling at first—Cat’s a spoiled rich kid who scores zero on the empathy scale, and Elena is barely surviving, with no time or energy to enchant us. But they grow on us, exactly as such kids would in real life. It’s marvelous to watch them discover that worlds and ideas exist outside their opposite bubbles.

The story is, of course, a marvel of layers and wonders—never was a book cover more apt. The basic problem is that something is draining Russia of magic—the weather’s weird (drought in Elena’s village, floods in St. Petersburg), the Fire Bird’s not regenerating properly, and even Baba Yaga can’t control her environment. The situation is depressingly familiar to those of us who worry about the melting ice cap.

The witch sets off in her chicken-legged house to find the cause, sweeping the two girls along with her.  They meet the Tsar, his godson, Rasputin, and a succession of creatures with their own agendas. They collect new friends and collaborators as a snowball collects pebbles.

Among the book’s layers are the varying relationships between adults and young people.  Most of the grown-ups are either dying or too depressed or oblivious to be of use to the kids in their charge. The two exceptions are Baba Yaga and Cat’s godmother, Madame Sophia, bookends on the social scale who turn out to be funny, delightful maternal figures.

I was bothered by the narrator, an imprisoned monk who tells us that he knows the story because he can watch the world through the eyes of birds. This device is so unwieldy that I’d rather Maguire had ditched it and just left us to imagine how the monk knows so much. Actually, I wondered why he was necessary at all—his little personal asides don’t add much—but perhaps I haven’t thought this through.

Otherwise, this is a wonder of a book. You should read it, or give it to someone. Coincidentally, it’s out just in time for the joyous gift-giving season.

 (Dear FCC: I’ve met Gregory Maguire, but I’m sure he doesn’t remember. I did not manage to snag a review copy of this book—my excellent local library bought it with its own money and lent it to me. My reward for writing this review is entirely spiritual.)