Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What The Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy by Gregory Maguire

From the publisher:

A terrible storm is raging, and ten-year-old Dinah is huddled by candlelight with her brother, sister, and cousin Gage, who is telling a very unusual tale. It’s the story of What-the-Dickens, a newly hatched orphan creature who finds he has an attraction to teeth, a crush on a cat named McCavity, and a penchant for getting into trouble. One day he happens upon a feisty girl skibberee who is working as an Agent of Change — trading coins for teeth — and learns that there is a dutiful tribe of skibbereen (call them tooth fairies) to which he hopes to belong. As his tale of discovery unfolds, however, both What-the-Dickens and Dinah come to see that the world is both richer and less sure than they ever imagined.

This books has me baffled. The story-within-the story about What-The-Dickens, the rogue tooth fairy, is more or less what I would expect from Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked; an imaginative interpretation of the tooth fairy (or fairies in this case) like we've never heard before. I have a few issues with it, which you'll her more about, but overall, the tooth fairy part of the novel I can handle. The realistic fiction part of the story has me so confused. Maguire goes out of his way to make readers aware that Dinah's parents are religious fanatics. From the first page we read:

"They kept themselves apart — literally. The Ormsbys sequestered themselves in a scrappy bungalow perched at the uphill end of the canyon, where the unpaved county road petered out into ridge rubble and scrub pine.

The Ormsbys weren’t rural castaways nor survivalists — nothing like that. They were trying the experiment of living by gospel standards, and they hoped to be surer of their faith tomorrow than they’d been yesterday.

A decent task and, around here, a lonely one. The Ormsby family made its home a citadel against the alluring nearby world of the Internet, the malls, the cable networks, and other such temptations.

The Ormsby parents called these attractions slick. They sighed and worried: dangerous. They feared cunning snares and delusions. Dinah Ormsby wished she could study such matters close-up and decide for herself.

Dinah and her big brother, Zeke, were homeschooled. This, they were frequently reminded, kept them safe, made them strong, and preserved their goodness. . . From the Ormsby’s bunker, high above the threat of contamination by modern life, [Dinah] could still love the world."

The books continues to make references to their zealous behavior, but in the end, it never plays into the story or comes to any end. And if the parents sequestered their family away from society, wouldn't you expect them to have supplies stockpiled? How did the children get left with an inept babysitter with only two jars of carrot baby food and a can of tuna fish in their whole home?

And I'm not sure what to make of the major storm that seems to have destroyed much of the United States? I guess it gives Gage plenty of time to tell What-The-Dickens' story to his charges, but couldn't that have been framed some other way if the storm seemed to have no other purpose in the story and hasn't even come to an end, by the novel's close?

And as long as I'm venting, at one point our story is interrupted by police officers/rescue workers who reiterate that it is not safe for the children to be at home and force them to evacuate to a shelter and Gage condones Dinah and Zeke's sneaky way of disobeying in order to remain in their dangerous home. Why? Seriously, why? There are never any consequences for their lies and they didn't bring any news about their parents. Why didn't Maguire just leave that out? The whole family story just doesn't make any sense to me.

Now as for What-the-Dickens' story, it starts out very slow. I wasn't surprised to read many reviews that said it was dull and they wanted to quit reading as What-the-Dickens dithers around trying to figure out what he is and what he should do. The story really picks up once he meets Pepper, and the Skibbereen society was fascinating. Again I felt like the plot failed me when the many problems with the Skibbereen society are revealed and none of them are resolved or even openly objected to (for example only senior members are deemed worthy of receiving a name, everyone bluntly tells What-the-Dickens he's a worthless idiot and feel free to mock Pepper liberally, and the leader of Pepper's colony is a bully).

All in all, it was a confusing read that I think most children will struggle to get into until about mid-novel.


Heather said...

Spot on. Enjoyed the tooth-fairies, didn't enjoy the framework.

Katherine said...

oops, I think my comment wasn't posted. Anyway, I chose Octavian for book club. I wonder how it ends.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I have only finished one Maguire novel. Confessions of an Ugly Step Sister was so dark but I enjoyed the twist of such a well known story. Wicked was very dark and contained a lot of things I didn't think that it needed to move on with the story.
This book sounds similar to it in that aspect. I guess I can't really see myself encouraging my kids to read one of his books, even if it is taylored to them.

Okie said...

Thanks for a great review. I read and reviewed this book many months ago and had actually forgotten about it until recently. I was wandering through a bookstore the other day and saw "What-the-Dickens" sitting in the children's section. In the 'middle readers' section actually (the shelf was marked as for 4-8 year olds).

To me, that felt like a gross misplacement of this book. While it was an interesting story and I don't remember anything terribly objectionable to a young reader, it definitely felt way above such a young readership. I could see this as an adolescent novel at most.

The book was definitely imaginative and had creative story elements, but I agree with you that many things felt disjointed or felt as if they existed solely as a mechanism for Maguire and not for any benefit to the book.

In the end, I didn't 'hate' the book, but I didn't absolutely 'love' it either. It's not something I felt I "must" pass on to friends, but I won't stop them if they want to read it. There are some good themes that can provide for some thoughtful discussions. The crafting just wasn't all it could or should have been.