What first drew my eye to this book on a recent trip to Powells was the title: I'm a fan of WB Yeats, have long loved his poem "The Stolen Child," and co-wrote a short story of the same name with brother Tim (you can find it in the Sir Robin Endures the Libelous Minstrels of Mercia section of the web site). What sucked me in was the gritty realism that pervades this dark take on the changeling myth.
In his book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats classifies changelings under the category of "Trooping Fairies," and describes their legend thus: "Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried. Most commonly they steal children." This introduction is then followed by three stories and Yeats's poem, all of them told in the traditional, fairy-tale style, relating high adventure and magical mysticism. I loved these stories, but never once did it occur to me what transpired with the changeling-turned-human—I was always focused on the stolen child.
Donohue's story brings the legend forward in time to 20th Century America. The novel opens with the spiriting away of seven-year-old Henry Day who, in a snit, decides to run away from home to punish his parents for some imagined slight. Henry hides himself in the trunk of a hollow tree and is later extricated, not by the firemen he expects, but by a band of wild, fierce-looking children who, amid a flurry of unintelligible speech, promptly take him to the river and drown him in a ritualistic ceremony that brings about his rebirth as "Aniday," their new fellow hobgoblin. In his place has been left one of their own, the eldest of their group who uses his magic to take on Henry's appearance and voice, and it is this changeling who is rescued by the firemen and returned to Henry's unsuspecting parents.
Aniday's life among the fairies is not the ethereal, high-spirited, fantasy existence one might expect. The group into which he has been adopted exhibits few supernatural powers beyond an ability to imitate the sounds of the wild creatures around them, stealth of movement, and perpetual youth. Theirs is a bleak life defined by a dull round of foraging for food, seeking shelter, avoiding illness and injury (though they don't age, the fairies can be hurt or killed), and pilfering supplies from the nearby town. The author gives us a view of a changeling as child trapped in time, forced to endure an isolated, harsh existence with no chance of escape until his turn comes to kidnap a new child and trade places with him. As the newest member of the band, Aniday is the "youngest"—the one lowest in the pecking order, the one with the most to learn and with the longest to wait before his turn to become human again comes around. Memories of his life as a human boy slip away quickly as Aniday struggles to adapt to his new powers and to make a place for himself within his new "family," not all of whom are by any means kind and sympathetic (think Lord of the Flies). Both fascinated by and fearful of the humans he no longer fits in with, Aniday is aided in his efforts to hold onto his identity by the preternaturally wise fairy girl Speck, who scrounges up scraps of paper for him to write on and accompanies him on after-hours excursions to the town library, where they spend nights reading together.
Meanwhile, the changeling now known as Henry Day is trying to adjust to his newfound humanity after more than one hundred years as a fairy. Keeping his new "family" unaware of the switch that has been perpetuated upon them is only one of his challenges (though this is serious enough—he notes that mistakes have led to changelings being burned in past centuries). Not only is the new Henry haunted by memories of his life in the forest, but memories of a still earlier life are also beginning to surface—the life he had before he was first kidnapped by the fairly band. As these memories multiply and combine to blur the lines between the three distinct parts of his life, "Henry" begins to develop an obsession with discovering who he really is—an obsession that only seems to grow with each attempt he makes to forget who he was.
A search for identity is an underlying theme to this novel. Alternating chapters contrast "Henry's" attempt to learn who he is with Aniday's attempts to retain who he is. And as time advances, Henry becomes more and more the person Aniday was meant to be, while Aniday and his fellow fairies are desperately trying to adjust to an increasingly urbanized world that threatens their very existence.
Donohue's prose is hauntingly beautiful, and his ability to switch between two narrative voices is skillful. Most impressively, he has created two characters that the reader cares about equally—I was unable to view the changeling as "bad," or the original Henry Day as "good"—instead, I found myself rooting for them both, and seeing the flaws in both. There is also a certain detachment the author lends to the voice of each character that puts me in mind of a line from the original Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (not the Disney version): "Thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." There is feeling of sadness, of loss, a sense of time marching forward for most while leaving a very few completely, tragically untouched in that famous children's tale that also inhabits The Stolen Child.