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November 4, 2007

Torn between two worlds...

I have just finished an extraordinary book and I had to share it with you. As a children's librarian, naturally, I am exposed to more childen's lit than anything else so I spend most o my time reading that. There is more to my attachment, however.

When I was a child, I was alone quite a bit. My brothers and my sister were much older than I was and they had their own, teenage lives to lead. They had friends houses to escape to when the fighting between our parents got too tumultuous. Indeed, it only seemed that on weekends, when my brothers and sister were off with their friends, that my parents would get into the worst of their rows, having come home more than a little tipsy from the bar or one of our neighbors houses.

My mother was always ready for an argument, sensitive and passionate, insecure and always jealous of the attention my handsome father would get.  My father, ever the narcissistic cruel jokester, would goad her on, detailing what this lady or that lady had whispered to him behind my mothers back, amused by her increasing rage. Eventually the slamming doors turned into broken glass and, mercifully, someone would call the police to calm them down.

I would lie in bed alone listening to the escalation, waiting for it to end, grateful for the intervention when it finally came and dreading the day it didn't. In those days, I had a hard time differentiating between shouts and laughter ... to me, the harsh volume of it all sounded threatening.  I would burrow under my covers, clutching the book I had fallen asleep with as protection, as if it were a doorway to another world that I could easily escape to, if only I wished hard enough.

While the storm calmed below, I was left awake. I would turn on the light on my nightstand, open my book, and begin reading. I had several books that I read and reread, touchstones that would ease my mind when I was distressed. The Hundred Dresses by Estes, Tico and the Golden Wings by Lionni, The Little Mermaid by Anderson and, my favorite of all, a collection of Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm. These stories told of a little one, a weak one, an outcast, an outsider, apart from their family, without friends, who imagines great things for themselves in the face of the ugliness of greed and sheer human stupidity.  Through all of these stories, a great love is what sustains them.  Their connection to the earth and their cunning and will to stay alive sets them even further apart from the flawed humans around them yet, they still give int he hopes that these humans will learn from their sacrifice.

To say that I identified with the heroes and heroines of these stories is a massive understatement.

As I grew, I never forgot these stories and, even now, as a teacher, I read them to my students, teaching them that fables and fairy tales have large life lessons for us all to learn. The question that I was always left with, however, is what becomes of the characters in those stories I loved. Do they live happily ever after? How could they, damaged as they were by the horrors they had seen as children. How on earth could Hansel and Gretel grow up to be well adjusted adults, marrying and having children, without being overprotective to the point of smothering, convinced that some nameless threat would come along to lure their children away and devour them?  How did Little Red Riding Hood not grow up to be paranoid, agoraphobic, paralyzed with fear, trapped by the certain knowledge that every creature she met from the moment she escaped the wolf on that she was being lied to and deceived?

Yet every story ends with "...and the evil was banished and they lived on happily ever after."  In my house, I had to believe that was true. I had to have hope to get out.

As I grew older, my need to believe that grew even more desperate, as my damaged childhood led me down a path of abuse and despair. My happily ever after had turned out to be yet another pipedream and I found myself alone in the wilderness, this time with two children to care for and protect. The stakes were higher, the reasons to fight more noble than just selfishness. I had a purpose and I began my long journey which would lead to my own happily ever after.

It's no wonder that when a book offers me the answers to the questions I was left with as a child, I would be drawn to it. Such was the case with Birdwing by Rafe Martin. I remember reading the story of the Six Swans and wondering what happened to the poor 6th son, the one that was never truly turned back to being himself. The description of Birdwing brought that story rushing back to me and immediately caught my imagination:

"Once upon a time,  a girl rescued her seven brothers from a spell that had turned them into swans.  But one boy,  Ardwin,  was left with the scar of the spell's last gasp: one arm remained a wing.  And while Ardwin yearned to find a place in his father's kingdom, the wing whispered to him of open sky and rushing wind.  Marked by difference,  Ardwin sets out to discover who he is:  bird or boy,  crippled or sound,  cursed or blessed.  But followed by the cold eye of a sorceress and with war rumbling at his kingdom's borders,  Ardwin's path may lead him not to enlightenment,  but into unimaginable danger."

I found this book to be a satisfying conclusion to the Six Swans.  The happily ever after aspects are neither trite not are the easily won. His battles are not only with the one that cursed him but the ones that try to love and heal him. Ardwin is an imperfect hero who, through intuition and sheer will, determines his own future. He takes full responsibility for every choice he makes along the way, even the ones that lead to disaster. When things do go terribly wrong (and they do several times), he is human enough to admit his mistakes and noble enough to try to make things right. There is nothing more satisfying than that.

Now if only someone would write conclusions to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty that were more realistic, maybe I could begin to believe in happy endings again. Until then, I will continue to question conventions, challenge stereotypes and fight my own childhood dragons.

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This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on November 4, 2007 8:27 PM.

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