New Fiction, The Girl without Hands

I want to thank Nathan Leslie and Maryland Literary Review for publishing “The Girl without Hands.” This is a work of fiction. While my growing up in north Edmonton certainly had an impact on place, everything and everyone here is fictitious.
This story has been rejected more times than I can count, and I’ve seriously considered changing the title a number of times. The story is part of a larger collection that I’m hoping to turn into a novel in stories at some point.
Having a story rejected a dozen times seems part of the process—at least some of the time. It can get harder and harder to maintain your belief in a piece when journals keep turning it back. I even had one editor tell me the ending “errors gravely”—they encouraged me to revise the ending and resubmit the story. I almost did. An additional character, Aubrey, comes into the story at the end. The editor thought this character needed greater play, and that introducing this character, without resolving what emerges between Audrey and the father didn’t work.
On the one hand, I thought I could just remove the reference to Aubrey, and it wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, I thought having this character present, if only in name, allowed for something implied in Bethany’s character. Clearly one editor didn’t agree.
Which actually leads me to the name of the story.
Such titles, The Girl—insert preposition, , insert noun phrase—have been very popular in the last decade. But if you know your Grimms’ fairy tales, then you can guess I took the title from the story of the same name. My story isn’t a revision or rewriting of the Grims’ “The Girl without Hands,” but it does inform my story, and there were aspects of the Grimms’ tale I wanted to include in mine, particularly around the relationship between father and daughter.
So I kept the title—and I never really wanted to revise the ending, anyway. In the end, I didn’t have to because Maryland Literary Review stepped in and published the story. So thank you again to MLR, and enjoy.

George MacDonald, The Father of Modern Fantasy

George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.

Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)

George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.

On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.

For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life.
“A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

New Fiction, This Time a Folktale

I have a story out this month. This one is a fairy tale, “The Bronze Egg.” I’ve written fractured fairy tales, and what I call apocalyptic fairy tales. But this one is an honest to goodness folktale—published this month in a collection of original fairy tales called Fantasia Fairy Tales. You can find the eBook here.

When my kids were small, we told stories at bedtime. I tried getting print-braille books for us to read from the CNIB library, which I did, but they came so infrequently that I needed to find another way to satisfy my children’s appetite for stories. I found an old anthology of stories from my first children’s literature course. I then found books of fairy tales and retold them to my kids. When I ran out of stories I had learned, I made them up; and when I was too tired to make them up, I cobbled them together out of anything and everything I’d ever read.
My interest in fairy tales has never waned. They appear in my courses, and I talk about them with students. I continue to write them, and I love to read them.
They are, even now, a guide to living—at least metaphorically:

1. Don’t wander off the path.
2. Avoid strangers who might want to eat or enslave you.
3. Be weary of seemingly helpless old people who want to lock you in a cage or a cupboard.
4. Beware of those close to you who suffer excessive jealousy.
5. and always—always always—be kind to animals.

Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.