Monday, September 28, 2009

Beautiful Nonsense Saves the Night

What the Dickens
by Gregory Maguire
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2007

What-the-Dickens, as the subtitle suggests, is the story of a rogue tooth fairy. It is also the story of three children, Dinah, Zeke and Rebecca Ruth, trapped in their house with their elder cousin Gage; outside, a terrible storm rages, and their parents have gone missing.

To keep them in good spirits, Gage tells them a story about the skibbereen - what human beings would know as "tooth fairies", and a renegade fairy named What-the-Dickens. What-the-Dickens is born in an empty tuna can, unaware of who or what he is, or much of anything, really. The story catches young Dinah's imagination, and gets them all through the night.

This is not a particularly spooky book, but it is a beautiful and imaginative one. The childrens' fear of the storm and their parents' absence gives Gage's story a sense of urgency: Dinah's immersion in the tale reminded me pleasantly of "Neverending Story", or any number of times when I was a child, reading my way through rough weather. The story of What-the-Dickens is only half the tale, though. This book was also about the power of storytelling itself, and the potency of belief in magic and prayer. Best of all, though deeply philosophical and thought-provoking, the book places itself easily in the grasp of its intended ten-year-old audience.

Gregory Maguire is known for his reworked modern fables, notably his series of books starting with Wicked. His choice of the tooth fairy in this book is interesting, because the origin of this creature is already terribly obscure: to tell the tale of the skibbereen (ironically also the name of an Irish township) really does require making it up as you go along, which Maguire does with all the craft of a master storyteller. In fact, I suspect Gage is Maguire, folded into the story even as the character folds himself into the narrative of What-the-Dickens. Late in the book, Gage has a moment of discovery about himself, his love of stories and of telling them, which struck me as a deeply autobiographical moment. All in all, a valuable read for any child with a love of stories told to keep back the dark.

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