Saturday, March 17, 2012

Librarian's Pick of the Week: The Old Country

Title: The Old Country
Author: Mordicai Gerstein
Fantasy, War
Published: 2005

From the winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal comes a memorable new work, a novel of singular insight and imagination that transports readers to the Old Country, where "all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic -- and there was war." There, Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox, and she and the fox exchange shapes. Gisella's quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its shape. She encounters magic, bloodshed, and questions of power and justice -- until finally, looking into the eyes of the fox once more, she faces a strange and startling choice about her own nature. Part adventure story and part fable; exciting, beautifully told, rich in humor and wisdom, The Old Country is the work of an artist and storyteller at the height of his powers.

Framed as an elderly immigrant's story, this overly ambitious tale transpires in a war-torn Balkanesque country in which various factions fight for possession of the land while everyone wishes to oust the Crags. When her brother is conscripted and goes off to war, young Gisella is left to hunt for and kill a chicken-stealing fox that has terrorized her family. However, a trial is held among the forest animals and the fox is exonerated for her "crimes." In spite of her lifelong warnings, Gisella looks too long into its eyes and she and the fox trade shapes. War separates the humans from the now fox-girl and her animal companions, but they are reunited in prison. A shape-shifting woodland sprite and an enigmatic "owl person" appear to explain the human ravages on the magical world at a "crossroads," where animals can communicate with humans. Through them, Gerstein explores whether evil is inherent in the world, the costs of war, and the existence of magic. Elements of fantasy and traditional literature are threaded through the realistic and semi-historical horrors of war. This pastiche of theme and genre, tone and voice confuses readers' expectations and ultimately dilutes the story's power. Humor follows horror. Buffoonish royalty is overthrown by covetous generals, Gisella's blinded brother recovers his sight via some gruesome magic and leads the fight for a Crag homeland, and the baffling outcome of the fox/girl body swap may put off readers as well. This is a challenging burgoo of a novel and a rambling character-ridden tale that may have a difficult time finding and holding an audience. - School Library Journal

If you're intrigued, don't forget to check our library's catalog for this book!


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