Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Grimm Structure

Tom McNeal takes the structure of a Grimm fairy tale and crafts a completely original and compelling story in Far Far Away, involving magic, childhood pranks and disappearing children.

Tom McNeal
Fifteen-year-old Jeremy Johnson Johnson, like many heroes of the Brothers Grimm, must battle big forces alone. He is on a mission to save the house he shares with his father from foreclosure, to feed himself and his father, and to get himself through school with little or no support from his father--who's confined himself to his bed ever since his wife, Jeremy's mother, abandoned them. Luckily, the ghost of Jacob Grimm has taken on Jeremy as his project (Jacob believes that helping Jeremy will free him from the Zwischenraum, a kind of purgatory for "those who are agitated and uneasy").

McNeal suggests magic may be at work when Jeremy and his crush, Ginger Boultinghouse, both eat of the baker's signature Prinsesstårta (princess cakes). Jeremy has avoided the bakery ever since his mother succumbed to the "Legend of the First Bite," which says that whatever living thing you look upon during your First Bite of the Prinsesstårta would steal your heart. (Jeremy's mother skipped town with a Canadian stranger she looked upon at First Bite.) Ever after, Ginger seeks Jeremy out, at school and at home. She also convinces Jeremy to pull a prank on the baker with her and her friends, for which Jeremy accepts full blame. Both dungeons and forests come into play when Jeremy and Ginger are kidnapped. And then storytelling itself gets them through, adding a layer of metafiction to McNeal's tale.

The friendship developing between Jeremy and Ginger lightens the often dark overtones of the novel. Not only does Ginger cheer Jeremy's spirits, but he also keeps her going at key times. And, like Grimm, McNeal plants a few twists readers likely won't see coming. All along the way, readers learn about the Brothers Grimm, as the author offers factual reasons for a fictionalized ghost character to feel compelled to save Jeremy. (The author learned many of these facts doing research for the book.) McNeal's use of a small town in contemporary times, surrounded by a menacing and mysterious forest that feels as ancient as fairy tales, and a hint of magic--like the best of the Brothers Grimm--serve to further this timeless structure: a hero who faces his darkest fears and comes out the other side, forever changed but stronger for it. The difference is that here both Jeremy and Jacob undergo this transformation.

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