April 24, 2008


Once Upon a Marigold. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $17.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street. By Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf. $15.99.

      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 Cherry Tree Lane, is part of Jeanne Birdsall’s attempt to fuse old-fashioned values with the story of a modern family. Critics and readers longing for simplicity, optimism, non-ironic storytelling and heartwarming sweetness applauded Birdsall’s first Penderwicks novel when it appeared in 2005 and will surely give The Penderwicks on Gardam Street a (++++) rating as well. But the persistent innocence and rather cloying dialogue may become tiresome for some readers, and a (+++) rating is more reasonable. The Penderwicks’ world only seems modern: the oddly archaic language and old-fashioned attitudes make it more the stuff of fairy tales. This is a family in which the girls use “do or die” as an up-to-date expression; comment among themselves, “The mystifying Marianne who hated flannel will long linger in my memory”; and tell their father, “Not only have we sullied the family honor, we’ve hurt you terribly, Daddy.” In truth, nothing catastrophic occurs in the Penderwicks’ world, where spats come at this level: “When pushed – and Rosalind was definitely feeling pushed – she could glower as well as anyone, and the glowering bouncing around that afternoon was truly frightening.” In this story, the four Penderwick sisters, whose mother has been dead for four years, confront the possibility that their father will start dating again, and decide that would be disastrous; so they hatch a plan to keep him for themselves and away from any potential romantic entanglement. Things go charmingly awry, of course, and everyone learns a lesson or two, and the girls hatch a “New Save-Daddy Plan” to replace the old one that didn’t work, and everything turns out quite happily for everyone – a fairy-tale ending, to be sure.

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