Story Box

by Monica Hughes,
ISBN: 0006480519

Snake Dreamer

231 pages,
ISBN: 0773759816

An Island of My Own

by Andrea Spalding,
100 pages,
ISBN: 0888783906

Post Your Opinion
Children`s Books
by Diana Drebner

Myth. Science fiction. Utopia. Dystopia. Islands have often been chosen as the setting for books of these genres or with these themes. And if the setting is not a geographic island then it is often the conceptual island of an isolated community, a sect or an astronomical terra in salo: the Conventry of a planet or satellite, real or imaginary, in the great sea of stars.

Islands may offer the speculative or philosophical writer of fiction the laboratory setting wherein we can accept as possible the controls and limits placed on the imagined society-whether it is Monica Hughes's planet Isis, the dark world of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, or the utopian speculations of Butler's Erehwon or Huxley's Island.

In Priscilla Galloway's fascinating Snake Dreamer, a young woman from Toronto named Dusa is offered a cure for a nightmarish and life-threatening illness by two doctors, sisters Teno and Yali Gordon, who run a clinic on an isolated Greek island. Teno and Yali are actually two of the three mythical Gorgons-Medusa, Stheino, and Euryale (Wisdom, Strength, and Universality)-and their aim is to piece together the body parts of their decapitated sister, Medusa, and to bring her back to life.

Dusa and her mother, Pearl, are engaging and interesting characters, but the Gorgons are often cartoon-like and the plot is just a bit thick at times. The saving "graces", as it were, are the secondary characters-Lucy, Diana, and Perseus-and, most of all, the snakes of Medusa, especially "the little snake". These snakes are the cause of Dusa's illness. At first they are terrifying, but gradually they come to help Dusa: they warn her, they befriend her, and, eventually, they help to heal her. Cured and reunited with her mother, she is ready to move on in her life although "[f]rom time to time, the little snake, sapphire stripes gleaming along its black body, rouses comfortably and then settles once more in her mind."

Icelandic sagas and Norse myths are an essential ingredient of Arthur G. Slade's The Haunting of Drang Island. Michael Asmundson has grown up in a family steeped in Icelandic history and mythology. In an attempt at father-son bonding, Michael and his father travel from Missouri to mysterious Drang Island near Port Hardy on Canada's West Coast. Michael's ancestors had settled on Drang and his father is finishing research on a book about the old Icelandic stories.

What begins as a research and camping trip becomes a dangerous adventure culminating in sacrifices to the great world snake, Jormungand, a battle between the gods, Thor and Bolverk, and an infiltration of ghosts and evil spirits called fylgja or fetches. The integration of plot and myth is at times, well, far-fetched and, while the story is competently written, it never does rise out of the "Northern Frights" adventure-thriller category in which its publisher, Orca, has realistically placed it.

Whereas both Galloway and Slade rely heavily on old myths for visceral and intellectual colour in their books, Andrea Spalding eschews these sources and opts for a more subtle and overtly realistic approach. In An Island of My Own, Spalding tells a nice, politically correct, and environmentally sound story about nice, polite kids with nice, polite parents who spend their summer vacation saving the local sea otter population. Very nice.

The most interesting character in Spalding's book is the island's genius loci, the spirit of place embodied in a voice that drifts in and out of the text like a sibyl and anchors the book in the spiritual aura of the West Coast: "The island smiled and stretched like a cat in the sunlight, the Girl and her friends were listening. Around its edge the kelp beds swayed in an endless dance hiding and protecting the secret. Then a cloud obscured the sun and a shiver ran through the cedars. The change was about to begin."

The protagonist, Rowan Feldman, is deftly drawn but often the other characters seem to be puppets to the plot. And what are we to make of Cousin Bevan, the nineteen-year-old who, we are told, is "in law school". He researches points of law and gives sound legal advice to the sea otter crusaders. Not only are these kids nice but they're geniuses. Genii? Whatever.

In The Story Box, acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer Monica Hughes has combined the purity of a fable with the darkness of dystopic vision. On the bleak, treeless island of Ariban, serious Colin and his dreaming, imaginative sister, Etta, live in a dour village-based society that has forbidden, upon pain of death, dreaming and the telling of stories. Their world is changed when a beautiful and outspoken young woman named Jennifer and her treasure, The Story Box, are washed ashore during a storm.

The landscape of Ariban is Hebridean and the people frugal, law-abiding, and humourless. The island is pure island. The people pure character. The sea is The Sea. In many of Hughes's previous books, there have been isolated communities: on the planet, Isis, on the Moon, under the sea or in a northern wasteland. All these worlds were "real" within themselves and within the universe bounded by the suspension of disbelief. But Ariban, simple and seemingly close to us historically, exists apart, in the universe of Story.

Hughes dedicates her book to "the Storytellers, who remember what is important, with love and respect", and The Story Box does at times seem remote and contrived, a storyteller's story for storytellers. The fact that this is so is troubling. Have we, as a society, lost our taste for fable, for story? Are we succumbing to the two-headed demon of pleasant and inoffensive "entertainment" and narrowly defined technology-based reality? Hughes has said that she writes science fiction to prepare young readers for "the post-agricultural, post-industrial technological world. The challenge of science fiction is to find new answers to new questions and help children to face the challenge of the future."

It seems that, with The Story Box, Hughes has found that there is a limit to what science fiction can deal with, and that at the farther border of science fiction is a strange and yet familiar place: Story. Yes, there are new questions and new answers, but there are also important old questions and their answers that have been passed down through story to enrich us and help us to become wise. This is the world, not only of The Story Box, but of all four of these island books that speak to us of spirit, history, myth, and dreams. 

Diana Brebner lives in Ottawa and has published three books of poetry. Her work-in-progress is a collection of poems called The Ishtar Gate.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us