Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

It’s Christmas Day. The long-lost daughter, vanished these twenty years, shows up on her parents’ doorstep; she appears no older than when she left, though ragged, exhausted and weary…and she claims to have been abducted by faeries.

The parents take her in, are gentle and caring. avoid pressing her for details…and don’t believe a word of her mad tale. She’s sent to a psychiatrist, is shouted at by her brother, now a father of four, but she sticks to her story, despite the lack of proof. She ran off with a Fairy Man, not realizing what he was, and has stayed only six months in that other world. She has no explanation for the discrepancy in time between the two worlds.

Is she schizophrenic? Or was she really taken by the elf folk?

Interesting! I know there were a number of reviewers on Goodreads who weren’t as taken as they thought they’d be, but I suspect that’s because they were expecting more about the faeries (or however you prefer to spell that). I’m not sure that’s the point of the book. There are more than a few stories, some ‘real’ insofar as oral history can be proven, and some overt fictions, about people taken by the Fair Folk who stay for what seems to be a day, a night, seven years, and return to their home only to find that some horrifyingly long span has elapsed. But do any modern folk really believe those tales? Would you?

And I think that’s what Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s really about: what if someone today claimed to have been taken by the fairies? Believe them? I don’t think so. Instead, we’d do pretty much what the family did: assume the person was mentally ill, help them seek treatment, treat them gently and lovingly…but believe them? NEVER!

Well, hardly ever. Tara sticks to her story, although we see this through not only her family’s eyes but that of her psychiatrist, who breaks it down into terms of someone who’s gone through (I think) a nervous breakdown, interpreting her tale in terms of the underlying psychological underpinnings of folklore as seen through the eyes of someone who has retreated from reality.

Yet there’s the dentist, who insists that her teeth are that of a much younger woman, and suggests that the family test her saliva with a new technique that can determine someone’s age. She’s being stalked by a man whom she claims is the fae who stole her, and brought her back, and who beats up the long-ago boyfriend in a quite convincingly real fashion. The old woman living nearby claims to have been herself abducted by the fairies; is she telling the truth, or is this another example of mental illness? Certainly she was treated for just such a problem, though with very different techniques than those used on Tara. But she’s on the ball enough to not only send an email for the first time but also recognize that the cat whom Tara’s nephew brings to her is not her own—another subplot implies he’s shot her moggie and is trying to make amends. After Tara vanishes, the (ex) boyfriend sees a revival in his musical career, composing and singing as if he’d been given…well, a fairy gift.

In the end, Tara vanishes in a puff of taxicab exhaust, and we’re left only with a brief scene in which Tara’s brother sees his wayward eldest daughter speaking to a man who matches Tara’s description of her abductor. The brother, a farrier doing quite well for himself even in this day and age of modernization and mechanization, comes over, but the stranger is gone before he arrives.

What actually did happen to Tara? We’ll never know. But I do appreciate the ambiguity in the Otherworld which Tara presents to us. On the one hand, these fae of hers are no dainty sprites, small enough to sleep in the bluebells they so love, but the size of humans, and seemingly without moral scruples about sex or nudity. On the other, it could have been a commune or psychopaths.

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin

Well, my opinion of those authors who churn out endless installments in serial books for kids just went up a notch; A Corner of the Universe is one of the better books I’ve read in the past few years…and I don’t like much.

It’s the summer of 1960, between one school year and the next, between the turmoil of the Korean War and the social upheaval of the Sixties. Hattie Owen is twelve, a bit too grown to properly be a child, but not quite old enough to be truly mature; certainly, she’s not yet allowed to eat in the family’s parlor after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago involving a deviled egg. Her parents run a respectable boarding house in one of the huge rambly old Victorian mansions from an era in which people had huge families; some of the residents have been there since before Hattie was forn. Hattie’s looking forward to another summer just like all the previous ones, in a small town that never changes except with the seasons—snow in winter, heat in summer and the immutable streets and inhabitants…

…well, you knew that wasn’t going to last, or there wouldn’t be much of a book.

Except…of course there’s an except. Hattie’s got an uncle whose existence was kept secret from her, more or less; he was institutionalized shortly after she was born and while they’ve met when she was a toddler, she does not remember him. The ‘school’ is closing, and so “Uncle Adam” must come home and live with his parents until they find another facility. Martin does not specify what precisely Adam has—either schizophrenia or autism—and to a large extent that doesn’t matter. He is different from everyone else, acts differently, cannot control his emotions and reactions as everyone else, including Hattie, can.

Needless to say, the summer is complicated just by Adam’s physical issues; he can’t be left alone, but is an adult with all that entails—he develops a crush on one of the boarding house residents and is devastated when he discovers her in bed with her lover. He wants to befriend Hattie, but not only do the other kids in town act like Mean Girls, his awkward attempt at a birthday party just for her goes badly awry. In the end, he commits suicide, unable to face going back into another institution or living in the, to him, bewildering outside run by behaviors he cannot possibly understand.

The language herein is not complex; it’s clearly written at a tween level, but the ideas are heartbreaking. It’s rare that I cry for a book written for this age group…but I did. I’m sure there are other books for kids which introduce mental illness in age-appropriate ways; this one struck me for its presentation of the uncle as a human being…who’s ill. Not a monster. Not demonized. Not pitying, or romanticized. There isn’t a lot of historical detail about how mental illness was treated at the time, but perhaps not necessary in a book of this level; I don’t think that’s the point in any case.

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Lynnie, the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, is developmentally disabled; her parents institutionalized her when she was a young child at the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Although she remembers a fair bit about her home life with her biological family, her mental limitations prevent her from truly understanding the concepts of “forever” and “since I was a little child”; there is really only now, today and the nebulous passage of the seasons.

Homan, Lynnie’s friend and supporter, is not only profoundly deaf but….drumroll, please…black. In 1968, that last alone would suffice to keep the two apart to the best of society’s capabilities. The fact that the institution in which they’re both “living” strongly discourages contact between “residents” of opposite genders doesn’t help. (Contact between the residents and the staff, well, that’s another matter.)

Martha is a retired schoolteacher, now widowed after a marriage of decades and an equally long career. She and her husband Earl had one child, which died, though Martha found some solace and fulfillment in the children who came and went through her classroom over all those years. Fortunately, she has remained in contact with many of her previous students…

…which stands her in good stead when Homan and Lynnie’s flight land them, and Lynnie’s baby, on her doorstep one dark and stormy night. Officials from the school show up close on the trio’s heels, but reclaim only Lynnie; Homan has already fled, and they do not know that Lynnie’s given birth. Martha is left with a newborn infant, knowing nothing of its parents or the circumstances under which they fled; being a good and honorable (and lonely) woman, she acknowledges Lynnie’s unspoken request and cares for the child as if it were genuinely her own flesh and blood. She calls upon her old students for assistance. One has become a hotelkeeper and allows Martha to stay with his family as they fix their newly purchased facility. Another is an artist with a summer home on Cape Cod, in which Martha stays one winter. And so on.

I’ll leave out the intervening thirty years except to mention that yes: it does have a more or less happy ending—I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to read The Story of Beautiful Girl for themselves—I’ll just add that I’m glad there were exposes of the institutions in which these people lived, not to mention legislation that encouraged communities to incorporate the people in them out into the community. Not only is it the more humane thing to do—who doesn’t want to be a self-supporting, independent person to the best of their abilities?—but it’s also cheaper. Tax-paying citizens rather than a tax burden is the way to go.

Keep in mind that the novel is as much about the daughter, left with the retired schoolteacher, as it is about the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, Lynnie, and her best friend, Homan. The author’s choice to skip between the three primary characters’ viewpoints fragmented the story a bit, and her additional decision to skip several years between chapters left gaps in the sequence of events. Overall, though, it’s a powerful argument for mainstreaming people such as Lynnie to the best of their abilities, rather than warehousing them or more life-threatening forms of abandonment.