CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 18 . . . . January 15, 2010
Iain Lawrence's new book, The Giant-Slayer, is a moving, powerful, educational novel that blends historical fiction and high fantasy. Lawrence employs the story-within-a-story literary device to juxtapose the lives of Laurie Valentine and her friends in a polio ward in 1955 and the lives of Jimmy, son of Fingal, and his companions as Jimmy seeks to fulfil his destiny and slay the giant, Collosso. Either story could have worked on its own, standing alone as an interesting novel. Combined in the manner that Lawrence has done, what emerges is a complex, yet superb novel that will surely attract the attention of award judges. Lawrence is a master craftsman, and he is here able to achieve things with his writing that others would not even contemplate.
Whether in the fantasy world of Jimmy, or in the historical polio ward setting, Lawrence's characters have the depth necessary that, despite the distance of another, fantasy, world or the distance of the passage of over 50 years, all of the characters "ring true"—they are entirely believable. As with real people, Lawrence's characters are comprised of a mix of uncertainty, apprehension, frailty and failings, off-set by traits of stoical bravery, compassion and determination. Almost all of the characters have moments in which they soar and moments in which they plunge.
Eleven-year-old Laurie Valentine's mother is dead. In her mother's absence, much of the care-giving that Laurie receives is from her protective, occasionally stern, nanny, Mrs. Strawberry. Laurie's father is only rarely available as he is constantly busy with his work as a fund-raiser for research into the crippling polio disease which is afflicting tens of thousands of children each year. Her father is Laurie's hero. He is, in Laurie's eyes, "the second smartest man in the world." Santa Claus, alone, knows more than Mr. Valentine. Yet, in his knowledge of polio, is fear. "Polio scares me to death," he tells Laurie, imploring her to be careful not to expose herself to the disease.
When Laurie's eight-year-old friend, Dickie Espinosa, contracts polio, he is placed in an iron lung at Bishop's Memorial Hospital. The iron lung helps Dickie to breathe, keeping him alive despite his paralyzed lungs. Only his head protrudes from the iron lung as he lies in the ventilator room alongside two other polio victims, the teenaged Carolyn Jewels and the pre-teen boy, Chip. Carolyn is sour and hardened by her eight years, flat on her back, in hospital. Chip retains hope and enthusiasm, dreaming of being able to attend the opening of the new theme-park in California, Disneyland.
While Laurie is visiting her friend, she begins to tell a story. Fingal is a deceitful inn-keeper who sees the money-making potential of his baby son, Jimmy. When the magical Wishman seeks to settle his account, he asks Fingal, "What is it you wish for?" The Wishman warns Fingal to be careful. "A wish may not always manifest itself in the manner the wisher intended." Fingal asks that his son always remains small. As a result, Jimmy must confront the challenges of life no bigger than he was when a baby. Imagine the enormity of the task, then, when Jimmy must face the rampaging Collosso. Despite his anxiety, Jimmy feels obliged to face the giant. "If I'm born to kill giants, I have to kill giants," Jimmy says. Fortunately for Jimmy, he has the assistance of the brave hunter, Khan, and the noble-minded, if fanciful, Finnegan Flanders.
Soon other children gather to listen to Laurie's story. James Miner scoots in on his treatment board. Peter and Ruth wheel in on wheelchairs. All are spellbound by the magical tale that Laurie weaves in the ventilator room. One day, Dickie remarks, "At night, I live in the story. It's like I've always been there." Dickie explains, "I'm Khan. Every night I ride across the mountains in the snow." Soon all of the children begin to recognize the similarities between themselves and the story characters. When things take turns for the worse, Dickie is afraid. Lawrence writes of Dickie, "He had to explain for the nurse, in his short little bursts, why he was scared of a story. He had to show her that made-up things might kill." In this, the parallels with Lawrence's 2001 novel, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, are unmistakeable. In Lord of the Nutcracker Men, a young boy recognizes that the events of his toy soldier games are reflected in subsequent events on the Western Front during World War One. Lawrence re-uses the same story idea here, but, as good as the earlier novel is, here he does it even better. There is complexity and sophistication to The Giant-Slayer that is absent from Lord of the Nutcracker Men. In the ensuing years, Lawrence has improved his craft.
Some of what makes this a great book is that in The Giant-Slayer, things do not always go as they might. "A Wishman's fortune doesn't come from giving wishes," Khan tells Jimmy. "It comes from taking them back. No one was ever satisfied by getting what he wished for." Be that as it may, having read truly great books in Gemini Summer (Lawrence's winner of the 2007 Governor General's Literary Award) and, now, The Giant-Slayer, I wish for the next Iain Lawrence book to hit my desk in a hurry. I expect not to be disappointed. Readers of The Giant-Slayer will not be disappointed. This is an informative, uplifting book that will educate and inspire.
Gregory Bryan teaches literacy education and children's literature classes in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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