Lily Paperback – October 1, 2016
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From School Library Journal
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As much as I always enjoy reading Ford, I was also quite taken with Staven Andersen's black and white illustrations. They felt both very medieval and contemporary-horror, with their exaggerated body shapes reflecting sins and graces in the tale. The combination provides a rich and frightening read.
Ford pulls the fairy tale trope apart like the cotton candy Lily eats - changelings and fortune tellers and Baba Yaga and even Old Scratch himself show up in the story, creating a new world that is as dark and gruesome as any Grimm Brothers' tale. And like a Grimm story, Ford's manages to take us from darkness to light through the simple magics of innocent love.
I recommend this book to readers of fairy tales, especially those who seek the terror and darkness in order to slay the monsters who lay in hiding there.
Thus begins the coming-of-age story of Lily, who has always lived happily in a seaside village with her mother and her fisherman father until his death changes her life. Like other central characters in fairy tales, she is given magical gifts (from her late father) and tested by an antagonist, the witch Baba Yaga from Russian folklore.
When Lily is unable to foresee the death of the witch, she asks: “Are you death or life?”
The witch simply loses her temper, and tells Lily she is “not ready for Baba’s game.” However, Baba Yaga is intrigued by the “wild magic” in Lily, and thinks: “Such a girl could be very useful. Or dangerous. Possibly both.” The witch decides to follow Lily in her journey beyond the safety of childhood into the dangerous world. Although she is a cannibal who eats children, the witch becomes a kind of supernatural godmother to Lily, an older woman who is better for her than Lily’s own mother.
Lily feels so guilty for her father’s death – brought on, she thinks, by her ability to foresee it – that she hates the “other girl” inside her who has this ability, and wants her to die. Lily’s self-contempt makes her vulnerable to a harsh religion in the outside world, where her mother was raised, and where she returns, with Lily, after the death of her husband.
What strange cult is this? Christianity.
The sly feminism of this fable is revealed in its neat reversals of traditional morality. A worse villain than Baba Yaga is the Reverend, leader of a traveling carnival, who converts townsfolk by making them afraid of the consequences of “sin,” a concept that seemed unknown in the village of Lily’s birth. With the full co-operation of Lily’s mother, the Reverend uses her prophetic ability to persuade potential converts that they can avert death – or at least violent death – by following his rules.
Part of the charm of this novel is the way it combines actual history and folklore from various cultures. While the Russian witch persistently stalks Lily in a version of nineteenth-century America, one of the women in the Christian carnival is a ghost whose child was traded for a changeling, a fairy boy who is trapped where he is. The fanciful illustrations at the beginning of each chapter add to the impression that this plot could take place anywhere, or nowhere in the actual world. (The drawing of a naked, gnome-like creature smoking a cigarette on the book’s back cover hilariously conveys the cynicism of the carnival roustabouts.)
Of course, Lily is being tested, and she can only return to her home in the seaside village if she passes the test. Lily`s compassion for a captive girl, covered against her will with marks of “sin,” enables Lily to break through her own self-contempt, find allies, and overcome hopelessness.
The whole saga is parallel to inspiring, based-on-real-life stories of young women who have been ensnared by men’s lies, but who escape and rescue others while coming to understand their own “wild magic.” This version, however, is more fun.