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Thursday, October 22, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: The Stolen Child

This week our group met to discuss The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. This debut novel was a huge hit when it came out it 2006. The Stolen Child was inspired by this Yeats poem that tempts a child from home, and has been described as mystical, a dark fairy tale, a bedtime story for adults, and a classic tale of leaving childhood and searching for your identity.

I have used this novel on many displays. Here is a modified version of the annotations I have used in the past:

At age 7, Henry Day is kidnapped by a pack of hobgoblins who replace him with one of their own. The chapters alternate between the experiences of human Henry and hobgoblin Henry. Neither Henry feels content in his life, and both are losing a grip on their true pasts. Their concurrent struggle to find where they came from lead the two Henrys to finally meet decades later. Although the ending of this magical novel is open, both Henrys do come to terms with who they have been, who they are, and who they will be.

The Stolen Child is a great choice for adults who want to try something with a touch of fantasy, but is still grounded in reality. It is especially appealing to readers who like Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffennegger, and Gregory Maguire, but don't read much other fantasy. Trust me there are a lot of these people, and for them, we have a Fantasy for Beginners list which I created posted on the BPL website. I am always searching for new fantasy titles for non-fantasy readers.

Now on to our discussion. This was the first blatant fantasy book we tried as a group. I was a bit worried because as a group, these women prefer realistic stories. As we began, it was clear they were a bit uncomfortable with the fantasy elements. One of the participants put it best when she said, "Once I suspended reality, it was okay." Another said, although each Henry's story was not based in reality, they each felt "real" for that character. In other words, Donohue created a convincing place in which hobgoblins and people could realistically be living side-by-side.

No matter the opinion of the group on the fantasy aspects, they all agreed that the writing was amazing and his imagination "awed" one group member. Specifically, people liked how he intertwined with double, alternating stories without blatantly having each scene told from the two Henrys perspectives. Their stories overlapped at times, but there were many connections and references to objects, events or characters that the reader had to piece together. We all enjoyed discovering where things overlapped.

We discussed the 2 huge themes of "doubles" and "memory" in The Stolen Child at length. People also liked that each of the 12 faeries had their own personality, and even though their names seemed out of "Star Wars," as one participant put it, they were easy to distinguish and "get to know."

One of our lines of discussion centered on why the changelings world was falling apart. We talked about the encroachment of the suburbs on the forest, but then moved to talking about their destruction as a symbol of human "advancement." We modern Americans do not believe in magic as much anymore. We are too rational to have time for the superstitions of our parents and the old world. We then discussed the popularity of Halloween in America (It is now the 2nd most popular holiday in America behind Christmas), and thought that maybe it is so popular because it is our only chance to explore magic and superstition today.

We also talked about whether or not The Stolen Child is the "fairy tale for adults," that the publisher markets it to be, and if so, what is its moral. We decided there were 2 morals. First, to try to look at the world with a child's point of view from time to time. Second, remember to add a touch of fantasy into your adult life.

Of course I had to ask, who is the "stolen child" of the title; since3 it is singular, I forced people to only pick one child. Some said, Aniday (the faerie Henry) since he is literally stolen and is forced to stay a child. Some said, Gustav/Henry because his childhood was stolen and he got to relive it as an adult. But overall we decided the answer was us, the adult readers. We are each the "stolen child" because our childhood is gone; it cannot be relived and we may have lost its lessons.

That being said, this is not a depressing book, in fact, the two main characters meet towards the end and feel that they have forgiven each other. They have also each "written" their story as a confession to the woman they love, and that is another sign that they have come to terms with their lives and can move forward.

Appeal: mystical fiction, debut novel, dark fairy tale, doubles/twins, doppelgangers, changelings (hobgoblins), myths and legends, 2 points of view, history and details of the growth of the suburbs in the mid-20th century, details about music both classical and popular, families, domestic fiction, identity issues, magical realism, thought provoking, coming of age, blurring of good and evil, alienation, identity, genealogy, bedtime stories for adults, lost/missing children, wild children, impostors, secret identity, coping and loss, belonging, parallel universe, literary fantasy, open ending.

The Stolen Child has so many appeals to match that I have a huge list of fiction readalikes. I am going to list them as I instruct my students to do readalikes; I will list the book and give a few key terms as to why I feel the books match. See the appeal terms above also.

All books by Gregory Maguire (dark fairy tales, retelling of familiar stories)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson (doppelgangers, magical realism, gritty)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (debut novel, lost children, magical realism, coping and loss parallel universe, multiple narrators)
Drood by Dan Simmons (doppelgangers, magical realism)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (magical realism, lost child, parallel universe)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (folklore and legend, bedtime stories for adults, parallel universe)
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (lost children, magical realism, coming of age)
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (twins, fairy tale for adults, literary, secret identity)
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (twins, magical realism, literary fantasy, supernatural)
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling ("wild child," coming of age without human family)
The Confessions of Max Tivioli by Andrew Sean Greer (coming of age, identity, magical realism)
You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon (three people's stories, memory, mythical)
The Wild Things by David Eggers (lost children, mystical fiction, coming of age)
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (magical realism, forever a child, fairy tale)
The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (child narrator, parallel world, dark fairy tale)
Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2 stories told side-by-side, magical realism)

For nonfiction, the most obvious choices are books about missing children, books about changelings, faeries, or hobgoblins, and books about myths and legends.

You can see why this book makes for a great discussion. There are so many other books it reminded the participants of. Even though reading fantasy was new and different for them, there were many familiar links we could make together.


Keith Donohue said...

Hi Becky --

This makes me wish I had been there for the discussion.

The changelings are named for common things found in the natural world in their home countries. Luchog and Smaolach, for example, are Irish for "mouse" and "thrush." Chavisory is slurred French for "bat" (chauve soire) and so on.

Sounds like great fun and thanks for your notes.

Becky said...

Thanks for reading about our discussion. My group of mostly seniors was quite impressed with your writing. And they were proud of themselves for enjoying "fantasy."

Most of them are not Internet users, so I will pass on your comments to them next month when we read Olive Kittridge.