I am fascinated by shape shifter books--not so much the paranormal variety seen in so many contemporary YA books, but the quieter kind of shape shifting, the sort that has a magical, fairy tale quality to it. The Old Country, by Mordicai Gerstein (Roaring Brook Press, 2005, middle grade, 144 pages), has this fairy tale quality in spades (although I think it is perhaps more fable than fairy tale, because there is a Moral). It tells of a girl who stares too long into the eyes of a fox, in country long ago and far away.
"In the Old Country, every winter was a hundred years and every spring a miracle; in the Old Country, the water was like music and the music was like water. It's where all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic and there was war. It's where I was a little girl, and where I was a fox" (pp 2-3).
When the fox and Gisella meet each other's eyes, the fox steals the girl's human form from her. Gisella, lonely and bereft in her new shape, must learn to hunt; the fox hopes to learn to make music. But war comes soon after the forced exchange...and the fox girl disappears along with Gisella's family, who have become refugees displaced by the cruelty of the senseless violence. To get her human self back, Gisella must find the fox...and so, in the company of a cat, a chicken, a bear and a fairy (of the small winged variety) she sets off on her four fox feet along a path that takes her to the court of the king.
So far so good on the plot front--a company of magical animals, performing as a circus act to travel through a war torn country is fine with me (the fairy doesn't do much, and is unobtrusive). But then it gets a bit odd.
Once in the king's court, where they find Gisella's people imprisoned behind barbed wire, her brother blinded by the war, and the fox girl unable to play music (turns out foxes aren't great at music) things get strange. The magical folk of the world (kin of Gisella's fairy) are in trouble--the war has destroyed their place on earth. So all the birds and beasts and magical creatures bring the rival rulers to trial, the rulers are found guilty, and anarchy (with the hope of stability to come) ensues.
I wasn't convinced by the story at this point, and my doubts about the book as a whole were intensified by the following issues I had.
--Popping up within this somewhat strange story are elements of magic that are almost random, such as a chicken that lays golden eggs, and the magical healing of Gisella's brother's blinded eyes (involving dew from a corpse).
--The level of violence and horror is great, but almost farcical at times, and the moral (war is bad) is both obvious and intrusive.
--The story is being told by an old woman to a young child, in somewhat formal language, and perhaps because of this I felt a certain distance between myself and the characters. I was interested, but not deeply vested emotionally.
--I don't think the fairies added anything useful to the mix.
You might conclude from this that I didn't like the book...but it was fascinating, and I read it in almost a single sitting. Gisella the fox is a beautiful creation, poised at a tipping point between the world of animals, the world of magic, and the unhappy human condition. I might not have loved this one, but not only did I find it thought-provoking, I even found it, at times, full of the Magical Storieness that is that is the main reason I read fantasy--the sense of wonder that the words of a skilled writer can bring into the reader's suburban living room.
Although I think that basically what my reaction boils down to is that I like shape-shifting foxes, but prefer them unaccompanied by Fairies and Morals.
Here's a thoughtful (positive) review at Collected Miscellany, that discusses two opposing reviews (negative from SLJ and positive from PW).
Anyone else read this one?