So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends. I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting. The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now. This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite. She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.
You know what I love the most about this book? The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them. I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much. How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read. Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that? Sending you books?
Okay, I’ll shut up about that. There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending. These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging. As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read. You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them. Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.
Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy. The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things. Ick. I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.
And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie! She’s fourteen years old!). Oh, God, I hate that part of the book. Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe. I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud. I know exactly how she feels. Poor little sausage.
Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end. Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.
Other people’s reviews:
Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
Tell me if I missed yours!