08 September 2006

Adult Theme in The Fairy Rebel

Many reviewers called The Fairy Rebel, written in 1985 by Lynne Reid Banks, an old-fashioned fairy tale. By that they seem to mean that its narrative voice is omniscient and its depiction of fairies derives from the Victorian. What struck me most about this book, however, was how an adult point of view prevails for much of the story.

Normally children's books provide readers with a young person to identify with or a reasonable substitute, such as an animal or toy, and they give those characters problems and ambitions that children can relate to. This book, however, starts out by focusing on an adult woman, Jan, with what strikes me as an exclusively adult problem: infertility.

Random House's teachers' guide offers a handy extract from the start of the book. Here's a sample of the issues that Jan and her husband, Charlie, face:

"Stop worrying," he told her. "The accident only damaged your leg. There's no reason on earth why we can't have a baby."

But it seemed there was a reason, though nobody could discover what it was.
Jan puts on weight, doesn't leave the house, and sinks into what looks like clinical depression:
Now Jan was beginning to cry in the nights when she thought Charlie was asleep. . . . One day, Jan was sitting in the garden under a pear tree. There were sweet ripe pears above her head and around her on the grass, but she hadn't the heart to eat one. She was just sitting there crying, all by herself.
That's a sharply etched emotional portrait. I wonder if such feeling comes from the author identifying closely with Jan. Like her heroine, Banks was an actress earlier in life. Her first book, the adult novel The L-Shaped Room, also revolved around pregnancy.

But I suspect that young readers, to whom The Fairy Rebel was marketed, can't fully understand Jan's problem. Of course, they can understand the words, but are the concerns and feelings they describe--not being able to have a child with your beloved, sinking into despair and anomie--what kids are ready to empathize with?

I note that students from Germantown Academy reviewed the book, and one stated the conflict this way:
In Fairy Rebel there is a woman named Jan who wants to have a baby very badly, but is afraid that the baby could inherit her leg problem. Her husband, Charlie, worries about this, too. So they do not have a baby, although they would like one very much.
That reader was clearly trying to make sense of what the book said, but she couldn't. Maybe in another twenty years.

1 comment:

Little Willow said...

I positively adore The Fairy Rebel and have ever since I first read it at a VERY young age. I "got it" (the adult POV) but I knew not everyone would. I was born old, so there you go. :)