Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: The Fledgling by Jane Langton (1980)

Georgie is pretty sure she can fly. She thinks she’s done it before, and she keeps making attempts to do it again. Her mother and uncle are concerned for her safety, as are her cousins, but this doesn’t stop Georgie from developing a relationship with The Goose Prince, a mysterious bird who comes to Georgie’s bedroom window at night to take her flying. Unfortunately, two of the neighbors - Miss Prawn and Mr. Preek - have also noticed the bird, and they are not pleased to have it around. Miss Prawn is convinced the bird’s presence means Georgie is a fairy child whose fate will be determined at the full moon. Mr. Preek simply sees the bird as a menace and seeks to destroy it the moment hunting season begins.

I picked up The Fledgling because of the Newbery Honor sticker on the front cover, and I read the entire thing before I found out that it is the fourth book in a series, the Hall family chronicles. To the author’s credit, this book really stands on its own, and there is nothing missing from any part of the story that would indicate other installments have gone before. In fact, the characters seem so new in this book that I am actually having trouble imagining that there were previous episodes prior to this one, and I really wonder how interconnected the other titles are. In any case, this story works quite well on its own, and despite the fact that it is a fantasy story, I didn’t have any trouble losing myself in its unusual, ethereal tone.

This story works on at least two levels, and I suspect I have not picked up on everything I am meant to take away from it. Georgie and her family live in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Walden Pond, and her mother and uncle run a transcendentalist school. References to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau run through the story, and busts of both men are on proud display in the family’s home. I doubt kids would have any more knowledge of transcendentalists than I do, and I don’t think lacking this knowledge ruins the book. Rather, I think the inclusion of transcendentalist ideals in the story’s subtext makes it the kind of book kids will be able to return to as teens and adults, as they do become familiar with these concepts. This is a more complicated book than meets the eye, and readers who recognize that fact may be richly rewarded.

I also think the story lends itself to many possible metaphorical interpretations regarding the end of childhood and the entry into adulthood. This is not an allegory where each character and plot point represent something specific in the real world, but I do feel as though the Goose Prince serves as a catalyst for Georgie to begin developing a more adult and less fanciful way of viewing the world. I think a closer reading of the entire book would probably bring out a significant number of details to support such an argument. In fact, every detail in this story seems important, and I think the author is great at selecting just the right description or action to define a given character. This is especially true of the villains. I thought it was perfect that Miss Prawn, for example, who is chiefly concerned with appearances, plants plastic flowers in her garden so that she doesn’t have to tend to them, and then later pulls them up when they are out of season so as not to appear out of step. Nothing else in the book gives the reader a better sense of Miss Prawn’s true colors.

A few things about the story puzzled me. I didn’t like that the Goose Prince spoke to Georgie, because I couldn’t imagine what he sounded like, and his dialogue pulled me out of the otherwise dreamlike sense of the story. There is much more narration than dialogue in this book to begin with, and to have a talking animal speaking any of the few lines of speech just felt out of place. I also didn’t really care for the ending, which seems completely incongruous with the rest of the story. The quality of the writing almost seems to save it, but I had the sense that I had missed something, or that perhaps I was misreading the author’s intentions. It might be that this book is better appreciated after multiple readings, and maybe there is a metaphorical significance I have yet to uncover, but I was not fully satisfied, and I don’t know that kids would be either.

The Fledgling is a sophisticated book, and I would recommend it to readers who are already very familiar with fairy tales and fantasy, and who don’t necessarily mind a challenging, unsettling story. Interestingly, it compares well with A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, which was the other Newbery Honor book in 1981. Both books deal with uncanny communication between animals and humans, and both strike a specific chord in the imagination that is hard to explain but very easily recognized. A contemporary children’s novel that also came to mind as I was reading is The Hop by Sharelle Byars Moranville. The Hop is a bit more mainstream, and much more straightforward, but it shares the same theme of interconnectedness between humans and the natural world.

They seem to be somewhat hard to find, so it might be a while before I have a chance to read them, but the rest of the Hall Family Chronicles books are: The Diamond in the Window (1962), The Swing in the Summerhouse (1967), The Astonishing Stereoscope (1971), The Fragile Flag (1984), The Time Bike (2000), The Mysterious Circus (2005), and The Dragon Tree (2008).

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