Fuse #8

Friday, April 07, 2006

Review of the Day: The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood

Not too long ago I found myself trying to convince people that Shannon Hale’s “The Princess Academy” was actually a really good and well-written book in spite of its ootsy-cutesy title. Now, holding “The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood” in my hands as well, I see that I may have to fight the same danged battle with Barb Bentler Ullman’s new book as well. I can’t think of a title (always excepting “The Princess Academy”, of course) that quite as effectively will turn off any kid with a low tolerance for adorableness. Of course, I understand the reasoning from a marketing standpoint. Fairies are, and evermore shall be, hot stuff. My husband took one look at the book and said to me, “There’s nothing I haven’t seen before on that cover”. This is partly the fault of the title. What allows “Nutfolk Wood” to stand out, however, is the fact that in this book the fairies aren’t half as interesting as the humans’ daily lives and activities. In fact, I kept feeling rather disappointed whenever something magical occurred, if only because it took away from what I felt was the real action. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Ullman has a gift with the old pen. This is undoubtedly the first in what will someday be a long and excellent authorial career.

Willa’s parents have just gone through a rather scorching divorce and it's taken it toll on their delicate daughter’s constitution. Now the poor kid feels nauseous half the time, she can’t eat, and she’s sick of living in the city with her mom and nasty Grandma Cookie. It’s time to take a trip into the country, and so Willa and her mother do. While living with Uncle Andrew far from the city, the small family discovers a dilapidated old trailer that’s on sale for cheap. They also discover a wonderful new neighbor in the form of one Ms. Hazel Wicket. While her mother is away during the day, Willa now helps out Hazel in her home and listens to stories of the fairies that live in their woods. At first Willa enjoys hearing the stories for their own sake, but soon it becomes clear that there may be more than a grain of truth to the tales. After all, didn’t the girl have a dream about coming to this place long before she moved into the country? Didn’t she see a trillium flower grow right before her eyes and a small person tend to it? Wasn’t that a small house she spotted in her own backyard not two days ago? It may be that there’s more to Willa’s new home than meets the eye. But as places go, this isn’t a bad one to call “home”.

For a while, I couldn’t figure out how this book was going to keep going without a villain of any sort. In stories of this persuasion, usually there’s some nasty bad guy just lurking around the corner ready to (in the case of such novels as these) kidnap the fairies and put them to use or something along those lines. Here there’s not so much villainy as misplaced grief. At one point the fairies’ home is threatened, but that’s simply because two members of a neighboring family are dealing with the death of their beloved wife/mother in unproductive ways.

It’s odd in a way that Willa keeps searching for 100% proof positive that the fairies exist when the sheer conglomeration of coincidences should prove it to her right there and then. Actually, the book this reminded me the most of was Mary Norton’s classic, “The Borrowers” series. In both books a female character hears stories of small people from an older female friend but rarely sees the tiny people in question. In this particular case, Ullman is not looking to classic English fairy lore with its malevolent sprites and nasty tendencies. These fairies are essentially harmless happy innocents. It’s a rather simple view of fairies, one that lots of younger children may prefer to believe in. Fans of books like “The Spiderwick Chronicles” by Holly Black or “Troll Fell’, by Katherine Langrish will perhaps find this tale too tame by their standards. For many, the real lure of this tale will be its real-life elements. It’s wonderful hearing how Willa deals with her parents divorce, the fixing up of a nasty old trailer, and her mother’s desire to purchase and reconfigure a bookstore in the nearby town. Also, watching Willa go through some basic chores at Hazel’s house (everything from using the outhouse to baking bread) is told in an incredibly comfortable, easy-going manner.

What Ullman does particularly well is descriptions. The feel of Willa’s new trailer home room, the beauty of Hazel’s gardens, the peaceful quality to the woods, all of this is described in such a irresistable tone of voice than I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one city kid who reads this book suddenly gets a flash-in-the-pan desire to go live in the country too. All in all, reading “The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood” is like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. It just fits. Kids who love fairies will not be disappointed and kids who find the title a trifle silly will also find stuff in this book to love. The fairies are a teensy bit silly by today’s standards, but for some kids they’ll still find something to enjoy.

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