A man of a certain age, bespectacled, dressed in a velvet robe, leather slippers, and Dickens-era nightcap, roams across a vast library whose shelves overflow with books of folktales, children’s literature, stories from all lands. He takes down an armload of books, pores over them, and begins to write a book of his own, one that borrows a lick here and bows in homage there.
That’s how I’ve long pictured Gregory Maguire’s working habits, the methods of a man who perfectly illustrates Samuel Johnson’s saw that a writer will eat up a whole library to make a single book. Hearing that depiction, reached at his leafy New England home not far from the Transcendentalists’ haunt of Walden Pond, Maguire laughs. It’s not so far off, he allows. But, he tells Kirkus Reviews, “I’m at a time in my life where I’ve got three teenagers, and I’ve been writing professionally for over 40 years, for a very long time now, so I don’t feel quite the same drive to write that I used to. Yes, I do have a lot of books, and I am always reading, and always writing—writing because it’s the only way I really know how to think.”
Write Maguire does, and memorably, in books like After Alice, extending the title character’s adventures in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and his Wicked series, an irreverent, entertaining revisitation of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. All have been hits, and much beloved. He now returns with a novel that draws on many stories, from the Brothers Grimm to Pinocchio to the real-life pioneer psychologist Franz Mesmer and on to the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale of the magical nutcracker, one that, thanks to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, has since become a holiday classic.
Many of Maguire’s books delight in exploring the dark edges of those tales, and Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker—Maguire pronounces the title not as it would be in Grimm’s German but to contrast something visible and something invisible—is certainly no exception. His hero, an enterprising young man named Dirk Drosselmeier, has barely escaped a gruesome death out in the dark woods of Germanic fairytale. Likening himself to a spider who hangs on by a slender thread to whatever it can in order to survive, Dirk scrapes by in the city, while others clearly see that he’s somehow different: he’s an outsider, and, as one woman says, portentously, “I’ve seen him, you know. He wears the mark of the woods.” But he’s also an artist with a special gift, one that will change many lives for the better in time.
“One of my great aesthetic heroes of my life, and probably the only genius I’ve known personally,” says Maguire, “was Maurice Sendak, a good friend for almost 40 years. I cherished his work before I even met him. I’ve long been intrigued by how people who have been abused by life have capacities to give us things that we cannot get by any other way. I’ve also been intrigued by the maps to imaginary lands that writers have given us—in the 19th century, Wonderland, and later Peter Pan’s Neverland, and then the country that Sendak gave us in Where the Wild Things Are. These supplant the old maps of heaven and hell from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and even today we still need maps of the imagination.”
So it is that Hiddensee takes place in a sort of recognizably Central European setting, but amid houses that might turn to gingerbread—or gleaming marble palaces, for that matter—at any minute, as Dirk and his small company of friends work magic of their own. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the story, set in places real and imagined, Maguire has given a lively, lovely backstory to a tale (or better tales) that we have long known but that take on new meaning, and new meaningfulness, in his hands. His own magic is done with the inventiveness and playfulness befitting a work that a child can read just as easily as an adult, but also with tremendous respect for his source materials.
After all, says Maguire, “Where else do we find sacredness but in children’s literature?” His new book is a hymn of praise to outcasts and creators everywhere, and a lot of learned fun besides.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.