A debut novel sees a boy fall into a fairy tale within a nightmare.
Ten-year-old Peter Engel is afraid of his dreams. They feel too real. Like the dream he has when he nods off during a math test and finds himself tied to a table, captive of a…witch? (“There, a long spindly figure searched near the hut. She was draped in a long glossy garment of the darkest blue and her arms dangled at her sides like broken branches.”) Peter’s fear makes him an insomniac, always tired, unable to sleep at night or even articulate his distress. Then, on the Friday before Halloween, he meets sixth-grader Sarah. She tells him how to escape from nightmares: All he has to do is fall and hit the ground. But that night, Peter is abducted by flying monkeys who drop him into a forest and into a dream. Running away, he meets the woodcarver Mr. Thorne and his tiny servant, Master Key. Peter takes shelter in their treehouse. He chops wood for Mr. Thorne and, in the forest one day, rescues a young girl from a witch. The girl’s name is Hannah. She seems familiar, but Peter is now forgetting the details of his real life. He is lost, and the witches are closing in. Will he ever find his way home? LaSalle captures the dark atmosphere of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, mixing short, vivid descriptions with a simple narrative style. Peter’s fears and forlornness come across as very real, yet readers are kept at a safe distance by the book’s dreamlike quality. This manifests particularly through the personages of Mr. Thorne and Master Key, who converse at a slight remove from reality and wouldn’t be out of place in a Lewis Carroll tale. Peter is a brave, if rather fatalistic, protagonist, remaining resolute even though out of his depth. The novel doesn’t provide easy answers—there is little guidance and no underlying moral—but this is apt. As with many of the Grimms’ stories, young readers may thrill at the shadows and, where necessary, take comfort merely in not being alone.
A dark, effective exploration of childhood fears.