“True magic is like sausage, made of bits and pieces of things we all have.”
Author: Karen Cushman
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | June 2016
Length: 224 pages
At age 74, after a lifetime of writing beloved children’s books, Karen Cushman still has the exuberance to try her hand at a new genre: historical magical realism. Cushman’s stories first entered my world in grade school when I read The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. I still remember its place on my shelf and wouldn’t be surprised if reading it was the start of my obsession with the Gold Rush. Most of her works however, including her Newberry winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, are set in Medieval times. Her new book, Grayling’s Song, remains in what may be recognized as Medieval England, but it sparks of magic.
Yet, what is astonishing in Grayling’s Song is not dazzling wizardry or a fantastical setting, but writing about a magical world in a way that illuminates the magic of one’s own. She writes about the big things—the great things—but these are not, as some would suppose, healing potions or the ability to call down thunder. The great things are gaining maturity and exercising compassion. It’s finding the strength to go out and discover the good you alone can bring to the world, and, equally tough, to come home to face the same hard familial cycles. Rather than leaving you with the wish to escape to another reality where magic makes hardship better, Grayling’s world leaves you with the special confidence that your ordinary abilities are just what you need to meet your trials as victor.
Confronted with a task far larger than she feels capable of managing, Grayling—an ordinary girl with a magical mother—grows in maturity and compassion through the choices she must make. Despite her sense of inadequacy, when an unknown evil steals the Grimoire (their book of spells) and roots her mother to the ground, Grayling must go out alone to rescue her mother and the book. With each new magical friend she meets along the way, Grayling’s hopes rise that they will be the one to conquer the evil. She meets a weather witch, a complaining helpless ward, an enchantress, and a diviner of cheese. But though each have “bits and pieces” of usefulness, making a team of unlikely heroes, only Grayling can lead the way. Only she can sing a song that beckons an answering tune from the Grimoire which they must find.
Forced begrudgingly into leadership, more choices present themselves. Should she risk her life for the sulky ward? Should she suffer herself to be burdened by an annoying mouse? Should she take the time to soothe the old and weary weather witch? When the startling evil is at last unearthed, what place should she give to mercy? Grayling gradually becomes the hero she never imagined she could be, offering all she can for the good of others, even when it might, literally, take everything she has. When all is accomplished Grayling returns home a different person, but that does not mean her home life will be different too. Once again the ordinary daughter of a magical mother, a new chapter, testing the maturity she has gained, begins.
I first thought this coming of age tale held a message only appreciated by the young, but I think there is more here at second glance. We could all use the reminder that in winning our battles what we need is not the extra talent of another that we so easily envy. Instead, what triumphs in our trials is the strength of character that builds itself by small choices in the right direction. We choose gracefulness towards the foul, we face our fears, we rub arms with unpleasant personalities until we see the human-ness in them. Soon enough we find that we have grown into new skin, and accomplished more than we knew we had in us. We may even find, like Grayling:
“Magic is not the answer. Magic may be convenient, brilliant, even dazzling, but it is not the answer.”
ARC courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt