Wednesday, July 25

The Dream Stealer


by Gregory Maguire
Clarion 1983, Reissued by Houghton Mifflin 2002

A demon called the Blood Wolf will kill all in a small Russian town in order to gain access to a magic doll with powers to defeat the animal. Two small children see a vision of the Firebird and hunt down the Baba Yaga in order to learn the meaning of the omen. An old tale of a beautiul woman, a motherless girl and the collective dreams of a town that build toward a showdown in the Russian countryside.

That's what I thought a few years ago when I wrote it but today I think something totally different:

What a crappy plot summary!

Yes, continuing my "week of coasting on old material" I've dredged up another from an old reading log I kept. This book, however, is much better than my initial summary and in a lot of ways my favorite Maguire book.

Long before he made a name as the king of fairy tale retellings Maguire took on three different classic Russian folktales -- Vasillisa the Beautiful, the Firebird and miscellaneous tales of the noted witch Baba Yaga -- and wove them into a very compact (140 pages) and well-told tale. (If I'm wrong call me out, but I don't know of anyplace else where these tales are all interwoven like this.) I remember the shock of starting this book, expecting it to be light and fluffy, suddenly compelled by the power of the book's voice to sit right where I was standing and read the book without stopping. I can get sucked into a book like most people but I have never before been so instantaneously and summarily been zombified by a book.

The night is dark, and the wind is high and strong and smells of snow: so gather close around the fire, my little friends, and I will tell you a tale of Baba Yaga the witch.

So it begins, and like a yarn told in the quiet of the night by a fire and entire world opens up, a world that exists in folktales that may never have existed anyplace on Earth at any time. It's a tale that taps directly into the vein of historical storytelling, echoing backwards and forwards in time in ways are rooted deep in the sub-conscious. These places, these people, this interconnection between humans and animals, between what is real and what is magical, all dredged from some part of our reptile brains like an inherited collective memory. I'd like to make the claim right now that the oldest profession is, in fact, storytelling and we have the cave paintings to prove it. The need to procreate is a survival mechanism as a species, but it's the need to create stories that feeds our souls and keeps us going.

Yesterday I referred to Daniel Pinkwater as a Zen master; today I'm calling Gregory Maguire a shaman. I am sincere on both counts, without an ounce of hyperbole, and I hope that doesn't discredit me in the process.

There are two things I do not understand concerning The Dream Stealer and they have nothing to do with the story itself. First, I do not understand why this book has never been issued in paperback. Hardcover retellings of classic Russian folktales, they don't fly off the shelves because they ask a lot of a reader (or a reader's money source); mainly they make experimenting with the book a costly proposition. Release this book in paperback, cut the price in half, and you're giving your potential market an opportunity to make a better fiscal risk. I hate to put it in those terms but if publishers are afraid to reissue titles for fear of making back their costs then I don't see why the thinking can't go the other way. Why does the hardcover need to be the proving ground? Go the other way, take the chance on the paperback, I say.

Second, why can I find no one else whose heard of this book? Everyone knows Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and even Maguire's other books for middle graders, The Hamlet Chronicles but no one seems to know about this book. Am I the only cracked person on the planet that thinks it's any good, and is everyone else just too polite to tell me? Is there some conspiracy involved, or some curse surrounding the Baba Yaga that rings bad luck upon you like saying Macbeth in a theatre?

What is it?
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