The Giant-Slayer, by Iain Lawrence

The Giant-Slayer, by Iain Lawrence (Random House 2009, middle grade, 284 pages), is two stories. There is the straight story, historical fiction set in 1955, that tells of a group of children struck down by polio just before the vaccine was developed. Within that story is a fairy tale, told by one of the characters, that (I think) gets more page time than "real life" does. So although its not a fantasy (nothing "magical" happens), it's also not quite non-fantasy. What is told in the story doesn't, exactly, stay in the story...

Laurie's father is a scientist, working as many hours as he can to develop the polio vaccine; when he thinks of his daughter, keeping her safe from polio is the only thought that comes to mind. But when Laurie's best friend Dickie falls ill, Laurie enters the polio wing of the hospital to find him. There he is, in a room with two other children, all being kept alive by iron lungs.

Laurie is a storyteller, and there in that room her voice brings to life a tale of an unlikely hero and his quest to kill a giant. Gradually her story takes into itself the listening children; each of them is there--Dickie, the great hunter Khan, Carolyn, the Swamp Witch, and Jimmy, the hero whose father kept him from growing up. When Laurie can't finish her tale, they bring the story to its end themselves...

It's hard to know just what to say about this. The central fairy tale is just fine (there are some interesting twists), but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to fans of fantasy. The real-life aspects of the book are fascinating (it's the best fictional representation of a polio ward I've ever read about), but felt overshadowed by Laurie's fable (I wanted more of the 1950s), so I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

But together the two parts of the book somehow worked for me, and I think it would work even better for a certain type of young reader, the sort who is sensitive to metaphor, the sort who appreciates stories with a lot of heart (ie me when I was in sixth grade, before I became all cynical etc).

Other reviews at Through a Glass Darkly, the Book List blog Bookends, Buxtolicious Blog, Shelf Awareness, and from a sixth grader (who loved it) at Book Trends.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review -- I'm going to look for this.


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