Thursday, May 26, 2011

Iconic Childhood Books: Red Feather

Red Feather by Marjorie Fischer; with illustrations by Davine; Modern Age Books, 1937.

My favorite childhood books all came from someone else. This one had my brother's name on the inside cover. He was 11 years older than I, my half-brother, and lived with his mother rather than with my family, so I suspect there is an interesting story in how I happened to come by the book, but not one I ever knew. I must have been older than I was when I got Artie and the Princess, for I made no attempt to colorize the illustrations. The book would be considered a "chapter book," 151 pages long, with lots of pictures but lots of text, too, with lovely spoken rhythms for reading aloud.

Red Feather is a changeling story. The usual scenario is that the fairies exchange one of their own babies for a human child, only in this case, the swap is interrupted. The resemblance is so close that when they return, they can't tell which is which. It makes a difference because the fairy child is nobly-born and the human child is destined to be the scullery maid for the Fairy Queen. In this world, only mortals are any good at housework. We follow the one the fairies take back, and like most children, she feels that she doesn't belong, she can't do anything right, she longs to be somewhere else. It's a variation of the "prince-in-hiding" Harry Potter "special-child" theme.

   "When my mother finds out that the scullery maid she has planned so long to get may be a fairy instead of a mortal, she will punish all of us," said the little lad.
   "That is so," said Michael. "she has spent days over ancient books of magic, and she has found that no fairy ever dusted as well as a mortal."
   "I was with her when she planned the changeling," said another fairy. "'How difficult it is to get good servants,' she said to me, and then she made this plan."
   "She must never know," said Michael. "we must all vow never to breathe to a fairy soul that we could not tell one baby from the other."
   "And now take one of them and let us be gone."
   "Aye, take one of them."
   Amanda had stepped back near the fireplace, and now the honest warmth of the wood fire seemed to spread deep inside her.
   "I will not have my child a scullery maid," she said, and a real tear ran down her beautiful face.

Re-reading the story, I think of a time when categories of books were not so rigid. The story begins like a fairy tale, "Once upon a time," and in slow stages becomes a love story, a coming-of-age story, a story about longing and isolation, a journey of self discovery and personal power, all with a gentle understanding of each character. I went through a period of not being able to read it without wincing at the way "fairy" has changed -- certainly, a beautiful young man with long, flowing hair dressed in tights who admits he is a fairy means something quite different today than it did in 1937, and I myself had to grow up enough to be easy with separating connotations so I could read the book entirely in its own terms.

An interesting historical perspective from the Publisher's Note: "The two major barriers that have stood between writer and reader have been the high cost of new books and their narrow channels of distribution. MODERN AGE BOOKS have overcome these obstacles. By the use of modern, high-speed presses manufacturing costs have been drastically reduced... and by using magazine distribution channels, new books, for the first time, have been made easily available to everyone."

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