Charles de Lint, Medicine Road (Subterranean Press, 2004)
So one day there's this desert dog, chasing a jackalope. The dog's hungry. The jackalope doesn't want to be dinner. Will the jackalope get away, or fill the dog's belly? We'll never know what would have happened, because they run right under Corina's nose.
Now, Corina can't stop meddling to save her life. She's Coyote Woman, and you've probably heard tales about her mischievous brother, Cody. But, unlike Cody, Corina's meddling's always small. And she always means it to help. So this time, she stops dog and jackalope, and she blesses/curses them. They can now shift their shapes, she decrees, and be either human two-legs or animal four-legs at will. Not only that, but they'll live for a hundred years. The catch? At the end of that time, if they haven't each found lasting love, they'll go back to being as they were. It would be a good idea to help one another... if they can.
But there's another twist to this hey-ya. Changing Dog Jim and Alice Corn Hair (dog and jackalope that were) aren't in this alone. All sorts of two legs and four legs are tangled into their lives. A hundred years of living will do that. There's Ramona, the snake-woman who's got a grudge against Corina for some former "meddling." And then, weeks before their century is up, two girls walk into their story.
You may not remember Laurel and Bess, but they're two of seven wild sisters, and they love to play bluegrass. They're twins, touring the country for gigs, and they've come to Arizona just in time to step into a mystery &emdash; or maybe a mess. Both, probably. They're pretty, for one thing, and Changing Dog Jim has a way with pretty girls....
This is a story about twos. How two can be alike, or diametrically opposite. How two can strive against each other, or work together. Light and dark are two. Opposites. But then there's the left hand and the right hand, working together. Or two eyes, essential for depth perception. The combinations are endless. In this story, just a few twos dance a pattern, and we as readers are left tantalized and satisfied.
Medicine Road is one of a series of shorter novels by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess and published by Subterranean Press. Seven Wild Sisters, in which we first met Bess and Laurel, was another.
The book stands nicely on its own as a complete story, but longtime readers of de Lint will find the story enriched by former characters, bringing the flavor of their pasts with them: Laurel and Bess, obviously, but also Bettina from Forests of the Heart. De Lint also draws on imagery and myth from Terri Windling's lovely novel, The Wood Wife, incorporating it into his own Arizonan landscape. It's a delight to meet the "aunts and uncles" again, to feel their watching presence from the saguaro and other ancient rooted beings here.
I suppose it's fitting, for a story about twos, that the creators are two Charleses. Charles Vess's illustrations make this not-so-simple fable deeper and richer. Vess combines line drawing and painting in a way that makes his pictures simultaneously vividly life-like and fairy tale-remote. Changing Dog Jim as Vess pictures him has a hundred years of laugh lines and cheek bones you could cut yourself on, but hair black and smooth enough to turn a girl's head. His Corina is all edge, but her edges curve unexpectedly, and you can almost hear the sharp rap of her boot heels as she swaggers.
De Lint's writing here swerves away from his longer novels, with their multiple view points and plot twists. Which writing style do I like better? Well, it's not like that. Let's just say that Medicine Road is like a dish made with a few strongly-flavored ingredients. It has its impact and lingers in the memory just as long as a complex, subtly seasoned meal might. I heartily recommend it.