Friday, September 17, 2010

Music, Myth and Magic

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme . . .

As I was growing up, this old folk song was simply a pleasant tune to hum, an interesting, haunting melody to play on the piano, out of my older sisters' dog-eared songbooks.

It was, at least, until I read Nancy Werlin's masterful Impossible, an exquisite novel that turns the riddle in an old folk tale into one girl's key to saving her sanity, and her life.

In Impossible, we meet Lucy, a normal seventeen-year-old with a life she's happy with.  She lives with loving foster parents, enjoys her friendships, and has just been asked to the prom. The only dark spot in her life is her mother -- a mentally unstable woman who wanders the streets of Lucy's hometown, occasionally attempting conversation with Lucy.  It's an unusual circumstance, but Lucy possesses the strength to deal with it.  Life, for Lucy, is basically good.

Until the night she is raped.  Afterwards, as the novel turns from realism to fantasy, Lucy is confronted by the evil Elfin King.  He tells her that she is cursed, as have been all the women of the family.  The curse is this:  to become pregnant at age 17, to have a baby, and to immediately go insane.  This is what has happened to Lucy's mother, to Lucy's grandmother, to all the women of her family for generations.  It's what will happen to Lucy in nine months, and if she has a daughter, the curse will continue.

The only way to avoid her destiny, according to the Elfin King, is for Lucy to accomplish each of the impossible tasks described in the lyrics of a very old folk song, Scarborough Fair. Lucy, with the help of her parents and her oldest friend, sets out to somehow defeat the curse, to free herself and all the women of her line from the clutches of the Elfin King.  The creativity and intelligence she displays are breath-taking; I could not put this one down, my brain running through the lyrics as I read, wondering how she would unravel the next piece of the puzzle. 

This is one of my favorite types of fantasy:  a retelling, re-weaving, of a very old tale.  I was a child who read traditional fairy tales, who grew up listening to old songs; for me, a contemporary novel that twists an old legend captivates my imagination in ways that more realistic literature just can't.  I love the retellings of old tales:  recent favorites have included  Wildwood Dancing, based on the legend of the twelve dancing princesses, by Juliet Marillier; Hush, an epic based on an Irish folk tale, by Donna Jo Napoli; and Pay the Piper, a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, by Jane Yolen.

Besides appealing to teens who have loved fairy tales, these re-tellings of more traditional stories present a powerful reading tool for students who struggle with literature.  By being somewhat familiar with the original story, a reader then has a framework on which to hang the events of the re-told novel.  Comprehension increases because the reader is able to anticipate events and make logical predictions.  Even when the novel version of the tale differs significantly from the original, having that previous experience with the characters and plots can allow the reader to make connections and comparisons between the two versions, thus increasing their engagement.  Any reading teacher will tell you that the extent to which a student is engaged with -- meaning interested in -- a story is the extent to which the reader comprehends.  Besides Marillier, Napoli, Werlin and Yolen, try Cameron Dokey, particularly for young readers.

As for me . . . . well, Werlin just released Extraordinary, her follow-up to Impossible.  It's sitting on my bedside table right now, just waiting for me.  Personally, I'm hoping for a rainy weekend.

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