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The Hidden World, Alison Baird, Puffin, 2000, 335 pp.
The Wolves of Woden, Alison Baird, 2001, Puffin, 352 pp.
The Hidden World is the story of a magical world visited by a young girl, a story written with grace and insight. Many elements of the book are familiar, but Baird makes them her own especially in the way the book favours characterization over the needs of the plot. Yes, The Hidden World has a sense of urgency but it's because Baird has made us care about the people first. The Wolves of Woden is a prequel with much the same structure.
Maeve is a teenager whose family lives in Ontario; her parents send her to visit her aunt and uncle in Newfoundland because of marital difficulties. Maeve is happy to visit the house where her grandmother used to live, and to visit some of the locales that her grandmother described in the beginning of a book she wrote. This book is Maeve's favourite, and it tells of how her grandmother visited a fantastic world, with the same geography as Newfoundland but populated by many elements of Celtic myth, along with other things no longer existing in present-day Newfoundland, such as plentiful stocks of fish and the native tribe of Beothuks. What would an encounter like this be like? And was this story really the way it happened for her grandmother? Stay tuned for the prequel to find out.
Soon Maeve is visiting in this fantastic world herself (the area of this shadow world that corresponds directly to where she is staying is known as Annwn). Maeve is convinced that her first few visits were only dreams, happy dreams of a bucolic community, complete with farmers who might be poor but know how to enjoy nature and so forth. But soon Maeve knows that both worlds are real, and the happy part goes away too. The magical land is invaded, and Maeve and the villagers she has befriended must flee for their lives. With nowhere else to go, they choose to enter the realm of Morgana, a much-dreaded personality who has magical powers and little patience for humans. Baird uses the strange bedfellows aspect of this part of the book to full advantage.
Late in the book, we discover that the entire story rests upon Maeve and a quest. This is an odd turn. The plot hums along nicely up to that point, and I was quite happy to see a fantasy novel without the standard quest format. Of course, coming so late as it does in the book, it's hardly standard format anyway, and the book has already won us over with its own charms.
The success of the book rests on Maeve; she's the awkward teen that we've seen many times before in this kind of story, but Baird makes Maeve real enough to inhabit our sympathies relatively early in the book. Perhaps as a mirror to Maeve's own feelings, the passages describing her life in high school and Ontario are stale and unconvincing, or more properly, unenthusiastic. The transition between Newfoundland and Annwn are some of the best in the book, and it's here that we get to know Maeve best. At first she's scared, then somewhat accepting, and when she comes back to Newfoundland, quick to rationalize it all as a dream. These are all credible reactions. Later, when she meets some of the people, she has has this amusing and quite logical reaction: "What were these people? Mennonites? She looked around for a telephone and was not surprised to see there wasn't one. In fact, there wasn't any kind of modern device to be seen: no stove or microwave, refrigerator or dishwasher, not even a sink" (56). Once fully in Annwn, Baird skirts carefully around the formula of stories about a visitor from our world to a fantastic one. For example, there's a handsome prince in Annwn for Maeve to notice, and the story does not go according to the conventional route (although the book hints quite broadly at what will happen).
Other characters in The Hidden World include Prince Arawn, leader of his people in a desperate time; Thomas Ryan, the first person Maeve meets in Annwn and soon a dear friend; Morgana, a fascinating character who is more of a strong person than an intimidating one; other members of Maeve's family, who mostly show up early in the book; and leaders and followers of the other factions of Annwn.
The Wolves of Woden has the same setting, Newfoundland, but is set during World War II, with a protagonist named Jean MacDougall. Here, Jean, Maeve's grandmother, is a young teenager, with all the troubles and preoccupations of her age and the time period.
As the book begins, Jean is the reliable one in her family, and the plain one between her and her sister Fiona. She has a crush on a boy named Jim but has never told him anything about it. She sometimes has visions and dreams of things that would never happen in Newfoundland, but she has never known quite what to make of them. In the first chapter, Jean and her family leave St. John's to go to visit the O'Connors in a remote area, and this is where Jean makes her first trip to the parallel magical world of Annwn in the second chapter. She meets up with a riding party escorting Princess Gwenlian, who is betrothed to Prince Diarmait. She meets the Princess and also the Druid Lailoken, who has a pretty good idea of where Jean is from but is curious as to how she got to Annwn and what her purpose might be (even if she doesn't know her purpose or fate herself). By the end of the third chapter, Jean has heard about the threat to Annwn by the Viking-like invaders known as the Lochlannah, and even saved the Princess from an attack by a Lochlannah magically disguised as a friendly warrior.
The first half of the book consists of many trips back and forth between Newfoundland and Annwn by Jean. When she visits again in the sixth chapter, she is a hero for having saved the life of the Princess. In the next chapter, she's back at home for a long stretch, an exciting time for her because of a dance and what happens afterwards. Jim, the boy she has never dared to talk to about her feelings for him, asks her to wait for him if he goes off to war. From this point on, Baird deals effectively with the common World War II experience for girls and women of having a sweetheart away at war. The second half of the book, however, is set more in Annwn than Newfoundland. Some magical artifacts in the kingdom of Annwn need to be kept safe, and this leads to a more standard quest structure for the remaining parts of the book. The quest storyline of the second half leads to a well-written and exciting conclusion. These elements mirror The Hidden World almost precisely; both books entice our interest with a likable and strong female protagonist, veer off into quest mode late in the story, and end satisfyingly.
Bairdís writing vividly evokes Newfoundland at the time of World War II. She mentions how Newfoundland was a British colony at the time, how scared everyone was of German U-boats, and quite a lot of detail about the city of St. John's. Jean is not just waiting for Jim, however, because she is busy helping to save Annwn. This may help to pass the time until his return, but at the end of the book she is still waiting.
Jean is a strong, interesting protagonist. She deals relatively well with the disorientation of constantly moving between Newfoundland and Annwn, and she displays her adaptability on more than one occasion. She's also courageous and determined, as demonstrated by her part in the quest of the second half of the book. Thankfully, none of these qualities turn her into an emotionally stunted action hero, and her reaction is always believable, even in situations like the dance or the battle which caps off the book.
My only complaint about The Wolves of Woden is the cover art. The cover shows Jean, on her own, running away from a burning building with some flying warriors swooping in from the sky behind the building. I don't expect an artist's version of what a character looks like to match up with the version in my head, but in this case the depiction of Jean is almost the complete opposite of how I envisioned her. Worse, the look on her face on the cover does not correspond at all to my sense of how Jean would react to danger. For me, the book is about Jean facing up to danger, facing up to her feelings for Jim (and how that makes wartime particularly excruciating), and winning through in the end because of her own courage and her connections with others. I wish The Wolves of Woden had better cover art, because on all other counts it is recommended.
First posted: June 26, 2002; Last modified: March 3, 2005
Copyright © 2002-2005 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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