You just try to get that Waterboys song
outta your head while you read this one . . .

h1 October 2nd, 2006 by jules


Oh, it’s too hard. “Fisherman’s Blues,” anyone? Ah, that takes me back . . .

Anyway, ever heard of the changeling myth? You know you have. And not just when the goblins come and take Ida’s sister away, leaving an ice baby in her place (o yes, I can work Sendak into any review). A changeling is a fairy or hobgoblin who steals into your home, whisks away your young child, and changes place with him or her. It’s an eons-old folk myth, perhaps most famously put to use in W.B. Yeats’ poem (and subsequently, for nerds like me, put to song by the aforementioned Waterboys way, way back in 1988 when I was but a wee sophomore in high school). In Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, published this year, this myth is put to great creative use.

I found this book in an actual moment of literary serendipity. I didn’t read about it on a blog; no one recommended it; I hadn’t even heard of it (turns out, according to NPR, that major reviewers mostly ignored it at first. Amazon sent galley copies to customer reviewers, who love to share their opinions, and it was marketed in that manner). I saw the beguiling cover image during an honest-to-goodness, child-free, leisurely moment in my local public library where I browsed the New Books section. After reading the book flap, I thought the concept was wholly original (an original twist on a theme, that is) and exciting, and it’s described as a “modern fairy tale.” Ooh, ooh! I love my fairy tales and any variation thereof. Then, I started it. I was immediately hooked even before the story started; the page after the dedication page evokes the words of Louise Gluck: “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” The book had me at hello. And then it commenced to give me the creeps — in a good way. I’d turn over in my sleep (when I had managed to put the book down and actually slumber) and think about those elfin, skittish, spooky, little scamps. Shiver.

But, confound it all, people! There were holes. Holes, I tell ya, in the writing. Let me stress here that I do recommend this book in that I still say it’s oh-so original (you won’t read anything else like it this year), it was compelling as all get-out, and Donohue is capable of some really illuminating prose, but these holes in the plot and characters’ development kept interrupting my reading reverie.

Okay, so what’s the basic plot here? . . . In the book’s opening, a changeling tells us that thirty years ago, in 1949, he swapped places with a human child, Henry Day, becoming his exact physical copy. “Not any boy or girl will do,” he explains, “but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world.” The real Henry (eventually dubbed Aniday by his fellow changelings), who had escaped into the woods to run away from his parents that day, is kidnapped, drug along the forest floor, thrown into the water (in what Kirkus Reviews aptly called a kind of “pagan baptism”), and then must acclimate to his new and wild forest existence and to the fact that he’s now an ageless changeling, that he will eternally be seven years old in his physical form. The changeling, now a duplicate of Henry Day back in the world of humans, must try to convince his parents that nothing has changed (but, not to worry — before kidnapping a child, the changelings do their research and learn everything possible about the child in order to make a seamless transition). To complicate matters, the changeling-now-in-the-form-of-Henry-Day possesses great talent on the piano, though the real Henry couldn’t carry a tune, and his parents are baffled (but, you see, our changeling was also once a child — a German musical prodigy of sorts over a century ago) . . . Over the course of approximately thirty years Donohue takes us into the worlds and minds of these two characters, alternating points-of-view between them with each chapter, flip-flopping from fantasy to reality. They sometimes cross one another’s paths, but will they ever meet face-to-face? Will the real Henry Day get his life back — or even remember it? That’s for you to find out.

Donohue is a promising talent (this is his first novel) and brings us moments of true poignancy. He also tackles multidinous and huge themes in this novel that is many things, including a coming-of-age story, a mystery, an adventure tale, and much more. He addresses issues of identity; he both celebrates memory and comments upon its disintegration in our lives; via both Henry and Aniday he personifies the longing to belong, feelings of alienation, the loss of innocence, and the inevitable separation from parents that must take place for all. Through their loneliness and their triumphs, we are treated — without excessive sentimentality — to a story about our very humanity and the power of love to transcend life’s despairs. He also brings to life in vivid detail the America of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, managing even to comment upon ugly urban sprawl. That’s a lot to tackle in one novel, and it’s compelling. And I won’t forget it for a long, long time (especially since the changeling-in-the-form of Henry Day works through a lot of his confusion and pain through his piano-playing. Give me a book about music — particularly one in which the ivories are tickled — and the ability of art to help us heal, one of my favorite themes of all time, and I’m hooked. Aniday also longs for books, manages to sneak into the local library in town, and finds healing and comfort as well amongst the pages of classic novels in the library’s basement).

But the holes! The holes! Is it just me? I won’t discuss them here so as not to spoil the book for anyone who wants to read it. If anyone else has read it and wants to help me with these holes (literary spackle, anyone?), email me offline or we can begin a discussion in the comments section below (any potential readers of this novel can avow to not read the comments). Several things I found downright implausible; some, unfounded; some connections, tenuous; and then — in my mind — a couple of gaping holes in the narrative. Wah!

Note: I’m placing this under “Young Adult” as well as “Adult Fiction,” since VOYA reviewed it (and not favorably, I might add, though a great majority of the reviews for this book are glowing). Disappointingly, VOYA botched one of the plot points in their review. Nevertheless, this would indeed appeal to some teens, particularly those interested in myths.

8 comments to “You just try to get that Waterboys song
outta your head while you read this one . . .”

  1. I read it a few months ago. Call me later and we’ll dish.

    But I will just say that I agree with everything you said about it. I loved the concept, even though a couple of chapters in I wasn’t so sure… it was very different than what I thought it was going to be like. I think I expected a more airy-fairy fantasy, and this was more Grimm-based. But eventually it won me over with all those good points you mention.

    By any chance, would one of the plot holes have to do with what Henry’s mom admits toward the end?

  2. Yes! That is one moment. I thought his father’s reactions to the entire thing was so well-written and gave me the shivers, although I wouldn’t have minded more there. But, yes, his mom’s subtle revelation in the end just seemed unfounded.

    Here are the others (I assume anyone wanting to read the book won’t read this far):

    * the BIG one for me was why why oh why did it take Aniday SO LONG to figure out that his life was stolen, so to speak — that someone else was walking around pretending to be him. There’s a moment in which the other changelings are talking rapid-fire about how they steal identities, etc. and how a swap happens, and Aniday is just standing there in stunned silence, it seems, and it was *then* that I thought he’d have his epiphany, but no. The book keeps going on and on and on, and towards the very end, he has his epiphany. It kind of gave me the shivers, too, ’cause it’s when he says “thief of my life,” but if it had happened earlier, it would have been much more effective — and believable. I mean, Aniday’s not stupid. I don’t get why it took so long for him.

    *and the moment when Henry confesses something to Tess — WHAT? What did he confess? We were left hanging. I assume it’s that he whispered in her ear that he wanted to have a baby, but it’s never made clear, and the reader assumes he’s going to confess the BIG thing — that he is really a changeling. I kept waiting for the fall-out, but nothing more is said.

    *I also didn’t think it was plausible in the beginning that he’d confess to Oscar (“I’m a hobgoblin”) — pot or no pot. But that’s a minor complaint.

    *I also wondered if Donohue was making a connection between Tess and Speck (such a great character). I don’t remember the specifics, but it seemed as if he was trying with certain connections he was trying to make via certain details and with comments he made. One of those details had me wondering, but I couldn’t remember where in the book it was mentioned before and didn’t have the energy to try to look it up. But it was so vague …. as if he were trying to connect those two, which doesn’t make sense, but then maybe I’m reading too much into stuff.

    I’m done now. — jules

  3. wow, that last big paragraph makes little sense. i haven’t had coffee yet. sorry.

  4. *okay, i don’t remember henry confessing to tess. but…

    *who tipped off the cops that the girls would be in the convenience store? and what happened to them???

  5. okay, i’m screaming, YES! right now in that that is oh-so true, and i didn’t even *think* about that. another hole…. i hadn’t even considered it. thanks for pointing that out.

    one thing i had initially put into my review that i took out, ’cause i sounded like, well, an ogre-reviewer or something awful like that (and i also reminded myself, who am i to say this? i’ve never written a book), is that the frustrating thing about this book is that it hovers on the edge of perfect, you know? what i mean is that, like i said, he is capable of some great stuff and shows it in this book, but then the holes are just so frustrating. it’s almost worse than just flat-out bad writing, you know? …when a book has that near-perfect potential, but then those parts that need literary spackle just drive you up the wall. make sense?

    the confessing-to-tess part is right after he’s gotten that teaching (music) job and he’s about to finish school and everything’s looking up for them, and she’s lying in the bathtub while he’s chatting with her…he notes how great things are, there’s a beautiful woman — his wife, no less — lying in his tub, and so why not? why not whisper this big secret into her ear? and then bam! that’s the end of the chapter. i got all excited, thinking that he told her he’s truly a changeling and that two chapters from now we’d see the fall-out from this, but there’s no more mention of anything. the very next chapter is where some changelings, including aniday, go into his home and mess with stuff and aniday sees pictures on the wall and a toddler in a play pen (Playard, whatever you want to call it), so i just assume that his big secret was that he *finally* wants to have a baby with her. but, man! don’t build it up like that and leave us hangin’, dude . . .

  6. oh, right, okay. i kinda remember that. i’m not sure i really thought he confessed anything, i thought he was just thinking about it.

    yes, i agree totally. a nearly-perfect book is so much worse than a purely bad book. it’s like being totally in love with the wrong person, and they keep breaking your heart but you can’t seem to let go because you can just see so much potential in them, and everything would be just so amazingly perfect if only blah blah blah.

    maybe his next book will be the one. i’ll certainly give him another shot.

  7. nope, he totally leans into her ear and whispers something. end of chapter.

    yes, i look forward to what he does next.

  8. […] Butler Yeats poem that’s inspired both a song by The Waterboys and a novel by Keith Donohue (co-reviewed by me and Jules last year): “The Stolen […]

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