"Rare" is an overused adjective in the world of publishing, where it's often twinned with words like "treat" and "gem" to form a compound modifier that suggests something extraordinary when, more likely, the book in question deserves neither. That leaves us with just plain ordinary, in which case "rare" merely compounds the fib.
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"The Stolen Child"
Not so with Keith Donohue's first novel, which is not only rare but charming. This is a breath of fresh air that turns the notion of hobgoblins and trolls on its ear.
Donohue settles on the term "changelings" and weaves a story so enchanting you'd swear he sprinkled the pages with, well, fairy dust.
Henry Day is a 7-year-old Pennsylvania farm boy who, nearly 37 years ago, ran away from home and sought refuge in the hollow of a tree. The changelings are soon pulling him from the tree, having plotted his capture so that the oldest among them could return to the human world by assuming his identity. After the abduction, Henry becomes Aniday and begins life with his strange new companions in the shadows of the forest.
Aniday's adjustment is both frightening and fascinating. The changelings resemble children in stature and face, yet the evidence of their hard lives is obvious. They must steal their clothing, subsist on a diet of frogs and insects, and stay hidden from humans. "If they catch you, they will think you a devil and lock you away," a leader named Igel tells Aniday. "Or worse, they will test to see if they are right by throwing you in a fire."
When a deer is struck by a passing motorist -- the last human Aniday will see in more than a dozen years -- he is warned to "stay away from people and be content with who you are."
That advice, of course, is similar to what any parent might tell a wandering, curious youngster and serves as metaphor for the book's message, which clearly is about the loss of innocence and our search for identity.
Donohue uses two narrators -- Aniday and the new Henry Day -- in alternating chapters as we travel the years in parallel existences. Henry's new life, by comparison, is one of warmth and comfort, although he begins to show an unexplained prowess for the piano, a reflection of a previous life in Europe. As one might expect, his talent raises doubt within his family and heightens his own self-awareness as he strains for memories grown distant.
It's inevitable that even as their separate lives unfold, Henry and Aniday will have an encounter. We learn of their loves, their conquests, their failures and, of course, the haunting thoughts that connect them. As certain experiences lift the fog from their memories, each imagines what might have been. Henry ponders the child he has with Tess, the love of his life. Is Edward human? A changeling? Will they return to steal his son? Aniday reflects upon his parents and sisters, wrestling with envy yet fretful of losing Speck, his own true love.
As their paths intersect, it's clear that neither will veer from the road taken. They draw what satisfaction they can from their memories and move on with their lives.
It's a lesson for all of us who may think longingly -- and too frequently -- of days gone by but realize there's little to be gained by ignoring the inexorable tick of the clock.
The title of Donohue's fantasy is a reference to W.B. Yeats' poem of the same name and a passage that serves as premise and promise:
"Come away, O human child!
"To the waters and the wild,
"With a faery, hand in hand,
"For the world's more full of weeping than you
Donohue, a Pittsburgh native, has done the remarkable in fashioning an inaugural effort that fairly begs the term "classic."
Indeed, it's tempting to compare his work here to that of Barrie, Baum and even Tolkien -- not just as a fanciful exploration of a childhood surrendered, but for its visual imagery and magic prose. But that simply wouldn't be fair since it stands tall of its own accord.
"The Stolen Child" is prefaced with a line from another poet, Louise Gl?ck: "We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory."
Donohue has validated the thought with a magnificent novel.
Magnificent ... and rare.
Allan Walton, assistant managing editor/Features, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1932.