Once Upon a Marigold. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $17.
The Penderwicks on
The danger and magic of fairy tales translate at best uneasily into the modern world. Today’s writers of fairy-tale-like stories for younger readers either feel the need to set them in times gone by or find themselves using fairy-tale elements in what only seems to be a story of our everyday world.
Of course, a really good writer can take the fairy-tale mystique and turn it inside out and every which way around. That is what Jean Ferris does in Once Upon a Marigold, which is both a sendup of fairy tales and a book that is quite true to their spirit and many of their age-old patterns. It is also a book that actually matches its marketing, which in this case consists of the cover lines, “part comedy, part love story, part everything-but-the-kitchen-sink.” Yup; that’s it exactly. It’s got a good-hearted forest troll who wants to take business away from the inept tooth fairy. It’s got a runaway little boy who comes to live with the troll and who we just know will turn out to be a prince, although we are not sure how that will be revealed. It’s got an inept king and a wicked, scheming queen and four (not the usual three) princesses: three of them safely married off and out of the queen’s way, and one considered too plain to be of interest to most eligible princes – and too interested in books, and afflicted with a strange kind of empathy/telepathy curse besides. And then there’s p-mail, the pigeon-borne missives by which the boy who doesn’t know he is a prince communicates with the princess almost no one cares about. And a blacksmith whose failed inventions now lie in pieces in the castle dungeons. And two really big dogs, and three little ones. And a ferret. But what this book has most of all is heart, and that is why – even though it does not quite end “happily ever after” – it is such a delight to read. Ferris is a whiz at creating convoluted dialogue that almost makes sense, as when Princess Marigold and the boy, Christian, are speaking, and she says, “More doesn’t mean better. Enough is as good as a feast, you know.” And Christian, thinking of his life with Ed the troll, replies, “That’s what Ed always says. Or, what he says is, too much of a good thing is as good as a feast, but that’s what he means. I think. With Ed it’s sometimes hard to know.” But the moral of the story is straightforward and, in context, absolutely right: “She said, ‘As long as we’re with each other –’ ‘We know we’re in exactly the right place,’ he replied.”
The second novel about the Penderwick family strives hard for this sort of magic – within what is supposed to be the real world – but never quite attains it. The book’s title, perhaps intended to evoke memories of Mary Poppins on