What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy Hardcover – Sep 11 2007
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BY EVENING, WHEN THE WINDS ROSE yet again, the power began to stutter at half-strength, and the sirens to fail. From those streetlights whose bulbs hadn’t been stoned, a tea-colored dusk settled in uncertain tides. It fell on the dirty militias of pack dogs, all bullying and foaming against one another, and on the palm fronds twitching in the storm gutter, and on the abandoned cars, and everything — everything — was flattened, equalized in the gloom of half-light. Like the subjects in a browning photograph in some antique photo album, only these times weren’t antique. They
The air seemed both oily and dry. If you rubbed your fingers together, a miser imagining a coin, your fingers stuck slightly.
A fug of smoke lay on the slopes above the deserted freeway. It might have reminded neighbors of campfire hours, but there were few neighbors around to notice. Most of them had gotten out while they still could.
Dinah could feel that everything was different, without knowing how or why. She wasn’t old enough to add up this column of facts:
- power cuts
- the smell of wet earth: mudslide surgically opening the hills
- winds like Joshua’s army battering the walls of Jericho
- massed clouds with poisonous yellow edges
- the evacuation of the downslope neighbors, and the silence
and come up with a grown-up summary, like one or more of the following:
- the collapse of local government and services
- the collapse of public confidence, too
- state of emergency
- end of the world
- business as usual, just a variety of usual not usually seen.
After all, Dinah was only ten.
Ten, and in some ways, a youngish ten, because her family
For one thing, they kept themselves apart — literally. The Ormsbys sequestered themselves in a scrappy bungalow perched at the uphill end of the canyon, where the unpaved county road petered out into ridge rubble and scrub pine.
The Ormsbys weren’t rural castaways nor survivalists — nothing like that. They were trying the experiment of living by gospel standards, and they hoped to be surer of their faith tomorrow than they’d been yesterday.
A decent task and, around here, a lonely one. The Ormsby family made its home a citadel against the alluring nearby world of the Internet, the malls, the cable networks, and other such temptations.
The Ormsby parents called these attractions slick. They sighed and worried: dangerous. They feared cunning snares and delusions. Dinah Ormsby wished she could study such matters close-up and decide for herself.
Dinah and her big brother, Zeke, were homeschooled. This, they were frequently reminded, kept them safe, made them strong, and preserved their goodness. Since most of the time they felt safe, strong, and good, they assumed the strategy was working.
But all kids possess a nervy ability to dismay their parents, and the kids of the Ormsby family were no exception. Dinah saw life as a series of miracles with a fervor that even her devout parents considered unseemly.
"No, Santa Claus has no website staffed by underground Nordic trolls. No, there is no flight school for the training of apprentice reindeer. No to Santa Claus, period," her mother always said. "Dinah, honey, don’t let your imagination run away with you." Exasperatedly: "Govern yourself!"
"Think things through," said her dad, ever the peacemaker. "Big heart, big faith: great. But make sure you have a big mind, too. Use the brain God gave you."
Dinah took no offense, and she did try to think things through. From the Ormsby’s bunker, high above the threat of contamination by modern life, she could still love the world. In a hundred ways, a new way every day. Even a crisis could prove thrilling as it unfolded:
- Where, for instance, had her secret downslope friends gone? Just imagining their adventures on the road — with their normal, middle-class
families — made Dinah happy. Or curious, anyway.
- For another instance: Just now, around the corner of the house, here comes the newcomer, Gage. A distant cousin of Dinah’s mom. A few
days ago he had arrived on the bus for a rare visit and, presto. When the problems began to multiply and the result was a disaster, Gage had
been right there, ready to help out as an emergency babysitter. Talk about timely — it was downright providential. How could you deny it?
Therefore, Dinah concluded,
- A storm is as good a setting for a miracle as any.
Of course, it would have been a little more miraculous if Gage had proven to be handy in a disaster, but Dinah wasn’t inclined to second-guess the hand of God. She would take any blessing that came along. Even if decent cousin Gage was a bit — she tried to face it, to use her good mind with honesty — ineffectual.
Hopeless at fixing anything. Clumsy with a screwdriver. Skittish with a used diaper. ("As a weather forecaster," Zeke mumbled to Dinah, "Gage is all wet: where is the clear sky, the sunlight he’s been promising?")
Yes, Gage Tavenner was a tangle of recklessly minor talents. Who needed a mandolin player when the electric power wouldn’t come on anymore?
But he was all they had, now. An adequate miracle so far.
"Zeke," Gage called, "get down from that shed roof ! Are you insane? We want another medical crisis?"
"I was trying to see where the power line was down. . . ."
"And fry yourself in the process? Power is out all over the county. Up there, if the winds get much stronger, you’ll be flown to your next destination without the benefit of an airplane. Down. Now. . . . "
WHAT-THE-DICKENS by Gregory Maguire. Copyright (c) 2007 by Gregory Maguire. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.
About the Author
Gregory Maguire is the author of more than a dozen novels for children as well as four adult novels, including WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST, which was made into a hit Broadway musical. He lives outside Boston, Massachusetts.See all Product Description
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I've read most of Maguires books, and this is by far my favorite. While I feel he starts off with a great story, it often fizzles towards the end as if he isnt sure where to go with it. That was not the case with What-the-Dickens, and I think I loved the ending best of all.
So I say read it, you'll probably enjoy it. If you don't, that's ok, but don't be surprised to find something that looks a bit like a moth-or is it a dead leaf?-on your bed post one night asking "why not?" ;).
Concisely, we have a story within a story. A few children are stranded at home looked after by their young adult cousin in the midst of a terrible storm. Their cousin seeks to distract them by telling the story of a fairy-like people called skibbereen who after arriving to our world became the tooth-fairy. He focuses on a young skibberee named What-the-Dickens whose experiences seem uniquely well-suited to drum some lessons into the lives of the real-life youngsters.
Neither the real-life characters nor the fairy tale characters impressed me as sympathetic. For the youngsters caught in the storm, their plight does not seem real. We are told about the terrible storm and danger but it never feels real. Additionally, they are perceived as being in their predicament in part because they have tried to separate from the world for religious reasons. Their parents have chosen for them a life eschewing the world and its trappings. This is not an overly-sympathetic world view to which one easily relates. Additionally, this then makes the story of the skibbereen who are also wary of outsiders and foreign world views a problematic story. It appears the cousin is blatantly contradicting the will of the children's parents. Maybe it is for their own good, but it feels uncomfortable and underhanded nonetheless.
As for the fairy tale creatures, the story is formulaic and clichéd. What-the-Dickens, good-hearted though naïve, becomes our hero who lacks the cynicism of the tribe he encounters. The tribe is generally just mean and set in its ways and cannot hear reason ("Math is a myth"; "Ask no questions"). One of the tribe's own, jaded and adventurous, wants to rise above her simple station and is something of an outcast. She fortuitously meets our hero and they are able to help each other, though not without their own conflict.
The story within a story construct seemed contrived. It was not developed to good effect making one wonder why he didn't just write about the skibbereen without the real world intrusion. The cousin even argues against the reality of the story he just told when one of the children wants to believe it to be true. What is the point of that? Just to highlight that stories true or false can be powerful and of great use or help to people?
The narrative, particularly the first 200 pages, was bloated. Maguire usually is adept at wit and word-play, but he did not come across very clever this go round. He writes a good description, but it grew very tiresome and seemed forced early on. Fortunately he did bring some things full circle and tied some of the early narrative in rather well toward the end of the book.
All in all, the story did not feel like one burning to be told (from inspiration). It felt like one that "had" to be told (from duty). It read like a chore. Perhaps this book may uniquely appeal to youth. But the best children's lit, in my opinion, transcends any such boundary. Maguire is very talented (which is in evidence here as well), but this just isn't a compelling story.
The overall concept sounds fairly airy and fun but at its heart, it's a lot darker than you might imagine.
There are two story threads going on throughout the novel and each one is very intriguing. The threads sometimes intertwine and even when they don't directly touch, you find yourself wondering about the balance between the two.
The story arc of the fairy creatures is highly imaginative and really a lot of fun. The reader is placed directly alongside other characters in the novel who are "hearing" the fairy tale at the same time that we're reading it. This juxtaposition of character and reader truly helps bring the reader into the second story arc and relate to the turmoil going on.
The second story arc, that of the children in the midst of a violent storm, is not entirely spelled out and leaves a lot to the reader's insight and imagination. I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel...the fact that Maguire trusts his readers to be smart enough to read between the line and to develop the characters and situations of the "real world" rather than rely on him to spell out every little detail.
The themes of hope, imagination and a world spoiled by adult influence are all presented very well. But it never feels like Maguire is preaching to us or standing on a soap box condemning the adults and unimaginative pessimists of the world. Rather, he is exploring the hopes and dreams of children even within bleak circumstances.
This isn't a fairy tale you should read when you're looking for a pick-me-up, but it's definitely something I'd recommend to those looking for a thought provoking story and entertaining writing.
Turns out What-the-Dickens is a tooth fairy - orphaned and born in a tuna can, he doesn't know what he really is until he stumbles upon another fairy at work (Pepper). He is then introduced to the fairy world, its rules and customs and beliefs. He tries to figure out how and where he fits in, while growing closer and more loyal to Pepper. The story is told in fits and starts as we also learn about the condition of the children and the status of the storm.
I think What-the Dickens can be read two ways: as a straight-across fairy tale aimed at mainly 5th-8th graders. Or it can be read with more adult undertones of religious and political themes. There is some discussion of faith, purpose, and sacrifice. And war, aggression, and territory. I wouldn't say there is enough fodder for philosophical debates or personal paradigm shifts, but there is a little meat to gnaw off the bone.
Maguire's talent with words does not disappoint, and the character of What-the-Dickens is a wonderfully complicated little skibbereen (the technical term for "tooth fairy"). He is at times simple, and yet honest and full of heart. If I'm being honest, I'll have to say that I cared more about the fate of the little sprite than I did about those stuck in the storm.
The book follows two plotlines: in the first, three children and their older cousin are waiting out a hurricane while their parents are out seeking medical attention for their diabetic mother. With the terrible storm, the place has been evacuated, and the children are nearly out of food. Much of the details of this emergency are withheld and revealed slowly, increasing suspense. To pass the time without electricity or any other comforts, their older cousin tells the story of a tooth fairy, the second plotline.
What I liked most was how the two initially unrelated tales (the storm and the tooth fairy) end up mirroring each other, both explicitly and implicitly. In both plots, the characters face a dangerous and unfair world, and the only way to persevere is to bend the rules. There are sweet moments of magic in it, scary moments of darkness, and even poetic moments asking the reader to reflect on his/her own life. Overall, the story ends up avoiding cliches. It kept me interested--I read it in just a few sitting. I would recommend the book to most readers, though it would probably be scary to some younger readers.
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