A Changed Life
I canít find an antonym for nostalgia, but if there were one it would describe The Stolen Child. The past here demands our attention, but the neither the author nor the characters yearn for it. Rather, the past lurks, destructive in its capabilities, and the characters are divided on whether the best tactic is to forget it or to remember every detail.
Iíve always thought that something really compelling could be done with the changeling story seed, and here it is. The Stolen Child is written as a double autobiography of a stolen child and the changeling that takes his place. Each tale, told in alternation, is moving and troubling and elegant (too elegant, I thought for a while part way through, but further along the elegance is justified). The fantastic element is limited. The changelings have little magic beyond what changes them from children into neotenous, long-lived creatures of the forest and back again. Their everyday existence as foragers at the edge of civilization depends upon the normal facts of life.
Thereís nothing glamorous about these changelings. Theyíre dirty, they squabble and play and fret like the trapped, bored and fearful children they are. And they yearn, every one of them, for the day they will take their turn to leave and become real children again. Mostly theyíve forgotten their former lives. Itís the advice they give each other: forget, live in the present and for the future. About once every ten to twenty years the group finds a child to grab so that the oldest in the group can take his place. It works out so that an individual remains a changeling for a century and more, sometimes two.
I wondered, sometimes, how this life cycle came to be. What was the origin of the changelings? The changelings themselves donít even have a guess. But, being a modern author, Keith Donohue is interested in timeís arrow as well as timeís cycle, and he introduces us to the changeling lifestyle as it is just about to change forever.
The changelings depend on the proximity of wild land and human land. They need enough land to roam in, to supply enough plants and small animals for their food. They need to be able to move their burrows away from human activity. And at the same time they need to be close enough to human habitation that they can steal clothing and matches and manufactured food. When the oldest of the crew is ready, they need convenient access to an unhappy child.
The particular group of changelings featured in the book lives near a small Pennsylvania town, in a rural tract which is becoming suburban. The child who is taken is a spoiled boy who resents his twin baby sisters and runs away because he is asked to watch over them. The changeling who is found in his hiding place is a musical genius who sings for his sisters. The sudden change in the son is not unnoticed by the parents: the fatherís life is embittered and made strange by the uncanny knowledge that his son is not his son, while the mother goes overboard to make the little stranger welcome in her heart.
Forget what you were before, and be only what you are now, is the advice the changelings give each other when they change over to their new lives. But our musical boy canít. He lives in constant fear of being exposed by the changelings in the forest, even as he grows up. By the time he becomes a father heís haunted by fear that his own son will be stolen, or that his sonís features ó true to his real genetic legacy rather than the legacy of his fatherís stolen family ó will give him away somehow.
Nor can the stolen boy forget as he is supposed to. Instead, he becomes determined to record and archive everything of his life and origins. He loses his efforts more than once and has to start over again, using notebooks and scrap paper foraged from the trash of the human town and stubs of pencils. As their lives progress and glance off from each other, each must come to terms with what heís lost and what he must accept as the conditions of his life.
The musical boy becomes fascinated with his true beginnings. He digs through the history of his wifeís former boyfriendís family, which she ascribes to jealousy. He makes a pilgrimage to a town in Europe where he discovers the music of his real father, and the story of his birth and emigration. In Europe, the songs and games of ordinary children startle him into thinking he has been caught out by the changelings, while his wife is worried about the more mundane dangers connected with illicit border crossings.
This book is full of modern uncertainties and insecurities. A personís identity is not guaranteed, nor his parentage, his physiology or his thoughts. You might long for the mysterious and dangerous treasure of the past, but the path to it can never be found: only a place here and there from which it can be viewed. The future is a shifting landscape and trying to pick your way through it is a risky proposition. Other people may not be who they say they are, or who they seem to be, or even who they think they are. There is that modern environmental concern, too. This little gang of fae doesnít just flit through the forest. The changelings have a life cycle and relationships to the land and to the regular human population. When something changes in human society or in the shape of the land, the changelings must change too. Other modern attitudes shape the acceptance of death as real and permanent, with no afterlife reprieve.
I canít convey how lovely the book is. There is no mawkishness, no cuteness, and certainly nothing coy about it. Glimpses of beauty in the course of the book are like glimpses of beauty in the course of any hard, anxious, sometimes grim life. Both of the boys are sympathetic. Neither is a pillar of virtue, though they both try to do the right thing for their circumstances. The stink of life lies on the page. When terrible things happen ó and they do ó they are real and hard and consequential. And yet there is nothing raw about this The Stolen Child. Iíd put it on a shelf with Sean Stewartís Mockingbird or Perfect Circle and Octavia Butlerís Kindred.