Charles de Lint, Waifs & Strays (Viking 2002)
When I read Charles de Lint, I don't just pay attention to the words. I slow down and listen to the rhythms the words make. I look for the underlying patterns of color and music that so thoroughly insinuate themselves throughout each new story or book. I go back again and again, watching as connections are formed between characters, as continuing themes run rampant from one book to another.
A Charles de Lint story is a multimedia affair, created and worked on so many levels, it's easy to miss something on a first, second, even third reading. With some of his stories, I'm still discovering something new after a dozen visits. I'm terribly jealous of him. His works both inspire and intimidate me. I come away with the undeniable urge to write, and yet the sinking comprehension that it would take me years of practice and millions of words, before I came close to capturing what he does. But I try.
His works cover the spectrum from high fantasy to urban fantasy (or mythic fiction), detouring into romance, daytripping into mystery, dropping by poetry, visiting the relatives over in psychological thriller, and even sending Christmas cards to the folks back home in classic myth and folktales.
He doesn't whitewash the truth, or hide from the ugliness of the world. He confronts it head-on. Open a de Lint story, and you're as likely to find the pimps and murderers and abused children as you are to find the cop with the heart of gold, the selfless social worker, or the irrepressible artist. His 'happily ever afters' are balanced out by the broken love stories, where people suffer real-world hurts and losses just like we do.
The magic in his world is good and bad, capricious and whimsical. Like fire, it can warm; get too close and it burns, at its worst consuming the unwary. De Lint's characters are real, with the same flaws as the rest of us, and believable problems. They struggle with doubt and belief, have to pay the bills and make ends meet, and for the most part, they're grounded in the same world we are, but for that one small difference: in their world, magic happens in more overt ways.
While we've seen a number of de Lint's stories collected before, such as in the three Newford anthologies (Dreams Underfoot, Moonlight and Vines, and The Ivory and the Horn and his chapbooks (Triskell Tales), Waifs and Strays is the first to collect stories from across the spectrum. In it, we're treated to stories set in Newford, Ottawa, Bordertown and Tamson House, as well as traditional fantasy, and futuristic fantasy with a science fiction twist. Of these sixteen stories, one is original to this collection; the rest have appeared in other collections, assorted magazines and chapbooks, even a convention program book. All that they have in common is that the protagonists are young adults or children.
Waifs and Strays refers to several things in the course of the book. Not only are these short stories compared to waifs and strays, short stories with a naturally short lifespan, collected from a wide variety of appearances, but they also evoke the spirit of the characters themselves. Some lost, some abandoned, some making their way in the world, some having their first -- or last -- brush with magic, all dealing with very real issues of life, love, abandonment, and a search for something better.
The stories have helpfully been sorted out into categories based on setting. Thus, the first story is "Merlin Dreams in the Mondream Wood," which originally appeared in Pulphouse, before being incorporated into one of the Tamson House novels.
Moving to a more general setting of Ottawa and the surrounding valley, we're introduced to five stories, including the aforementioned original story. Both "There's No Such Thing" and "Sisters" deal with a subject rare to de Lint's works, vampires, and his particular twist on the genre. Appoline "Apples" Smith is your average sixteen-year-old going on nineteen, who'll do anything to protect her little sister, Cassandra, from the dangers of the world, be it child molesters, or nature's own ravages (Cassie suffers from a deformed leg, and acute asthma). But when the baby-sitter turns out to be worse than any supernatural predator, what can she do? And when someone related to one of Apples' past problems comes back to haunt her, where will she turn to for help? Either way, the two sisters have some hard choices to make about life, death, and the grey areas in between.
"Fairy Dust" is a poignant story of loss and regret. What happens when you trap a fairy, and it can't stand to be imprisoned? How do you make amends?
"A Wish Named Arnold" is a clever twist on the old matter of making wishes, and of granting them. When Marguerite meets a wish named Arnold, she hangs on to it, wanting a friend more than a wish. But sooner or later, we all have to let go, right? If you love something, set it free, so it can move on or not, as it wishes. But is a wish ever truly free?
"Wooden Bones" tells of Liz, a city girl sent to live with her relatives in the country for a while. She most definitely doesn't fit in, or feel like part of them. But that may change when she meets a rabbit-headed musician.
The next section contains two stories, and is appropriate entitled "Otherworlds: Past and Future." The first of these stories, "The Graceless Child," is inspired by Shetland folklore, with a bit of Scandinavian myth mixed in for good measure. Tetchie is a half-breed, her mother human and her father one of the deadly trows. Her father died, turned to stone by the sunlight without ever knowing he had a child. Her mother died some time back, leaving the poor girl to make her own way in a society that hates and fears and mocks her. Desperate for family or friends, she makes a dangerous, unwise bargain with a tattooed man in the woods who turns out to be much more than she ever expected. Before the night is through, she'll deal with the lords of Dream and Nightmares, learn the power of blood, meet her father for the first and last time, and make a fateful decision that will shape her life. Both sad and hopeful, it's a touching story of a child's need and an adult's courage.
"A Tattoo On Her Heart" is set in roughly the same sort of setting as de Lint's other science fiction offering, Svaha(/svaha.html), though in a different city if indeed that world. It's an odd story of totems and sacrifices.
Next, we move on to Bordertown, where de Lint shares two stories. The first is a long one, entitled "Stick." Though the title character is older and wiser, the girl he rescues from trouble certainly is not. And Amanda Woodsdatter will certainly shake up his life before all is said and done. "May This Be Your Last Sorrow" appeared in the most recent Bordertown collection, The Essential Bordertown.(/bordertown.html) It's a short, introspective piece about a girl who could never live up to the expectations of her famous, talented parents, and the unresponsive gargoyle who is her only confidante. In just a few pages, de Lint captures the essence of a lonely life.
Finally, we end up in Newford itself, where a vast amount of de Lint's output over the past decade and more has been set. A full six stories represent this mythical North American city.
In "One Chance," several unhappy children have a chance to leave behind the world they dislike and travel to a much better place, heralded by the appearance of a strange wolfman. Though this doesn't actually take place in Newford, it features a character who does, eventually, move to that city. This isn't uncommon in de Lint's works. You never know when someone will decide to move and show up where they're not expected. After all, Cerin and Meran Kelledy, protagonists of at least one traditional fantasy book and numerous short stories, appeared in Newford one day and still haven't explained how or why.
"Alone" has Susanna, not much happier than before but satisfied with her family, in a new school in a new city. When she meets a young man with a dangerous secret, she'll be in a position to help or destroy him. What matters in the end will be if anyone cares. Sometimes, all we need in the world is one person to care about us.
"But For The Grace Go I" is one of several stories to feature independent Maisie Flood, who moved onto the streets when she was twelve, and forged her own destiny despite the many dangers. Now older and wiser, she's responsible for a pack of neurotic dogs and a mentally deficient man twice her age named Tommy. They live in a squat, and make ends meet, barely. But who will the stubborn Maisie turn to when an ominous letter turns up in her Post Office box, and how will it change the way she approaches her life?
"Ghosts of Wind and Shadow" features the aforementioned Kelledys, who've found a niche as musicians and teachers in Newford. When one of their promising students gets in trouble for believing in fairies, her mother comes to enlist Meran's help in bringing Lesli Batterberry back to the straight and narrow. But Lesli has other ideas, which start with running away. It's up to Meran and her husband Cerin to enlist some help and rescue Lesli from a horrible fate on the streets. However, Lesli isn't entirely helpless or ready to give up either. The true question is, will Lesli's mother be able to cope with the events, and the fact that magic exists?
"Waifs and Strays," which lends its name to the title of the collection, is another story about Maisie Flood. She's moved up in the world to a real apartment, a real job, and night classes, thanks to the encouragement of the Grasso Street Angel, all in an effort to better provide for Tommy and the dogs. But the strain is wearing her down and tearing her apart. When the ghost of her mentor shows up, Maisie must be going insane, right? Or is this a sign to rethink her choices and find a better way of doing things? Maisie's never been one to take advice willingly, or admit when she needs help, but if she doesn't, it may destroy her.
"Somewhere In My Mind There Is A Painting Box" is the rather long title for a short story featuring young Lily, also a protagonist in the forthcoming Seven Wild Sisters, as well as A Circle of Cats. This is an extended version of a story also appearing in the Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow anthology, The Green Man -- Tales from the Mythic Forest. Lily has a talent for art, and an affinity with nature. But one day she discovers a lost painting box that belongs to a painter who disappeared over twenty years ago. When said painter's also-missing companion turns up, not a day older, Lily has to wonder if the stories of people vanishing into Faerie are true. And if so, how might she get there?
This collection also features a preface by longtime de Lint editor and noted artist, anthologist, and folklorist in her own right, Terri Windling. In it, she explains why these stories are magical, drawing upon comparisons between de Lint and the great Trickster himself. It's an intelligent, easily approached essay that really does boil down the appeal and the magic. De Lint, like the Trickster, crosses boundaries and takes us with him. He celebrates the creative process by embracing both sides of the coin: family and community vs poverty, illness, fear, despair, and more. His stories focus on the outsiders of society, all of whom have been touched and changed by Mystery.
De Lint's own introduction to the book explains why he loves short stories, including the fact that you can take a chance with them. Make the wrong choice, you've only lost a few weeks. You can't afford to be that risky with a novel. Short stories are perfect to experiment with expression and themes, though the downside is the short lifespan. Unless, of course, they're collected like they are here. He finishes by hoping that his stories will inspire others to pursue their own creative processes, not least so he himself will have more to read. I think we can all applaud that sentiment. Mr. de Lint, you had me at hello. He goes on to give each story and section in the book introductions, explaining where they came from, or why they in particular were chosen for this collection. The origins of stories are often just as fascinating as the tales themselves.
One can hardly finish talking about Waifs and Strays without noting that the cover is absolutely gorgeous. Done by the same man who did the cover art for The Onion Girl, John Jude Palencar, it bears that same mythic, dreamy quality. That same girl who's sitting in the tree for The Onion Girl has moved on to stand, impossibly, in the thinnest branches of a much smaller tree, where she's playing the pipe. If it's not the same character, it's one very close. I suspect there's a series in progress, and I look forward to seeing where it leads.
How can I describe this book? Brilliant seems overdone, and magnificent an understatement. It's absolutely representative of de Lint's finest works, a sampler of the worlds he's created or borrowed, bringing in some of his finest, best-loved, best-remembered characters. In his stories, you'll find worlds within worlds, and magic around every corner. This is the sort of collection which will assure you that while yes, the world's not always nice or fair or pretty, it's seldom unchangeable if you hold true to your heart and don't give up. The characters making the difference, learning the lesson, growing and changing and living, are all children and young adults. The grown-ups don't come in and wave a hand to save the day. No, these children make all the hard choices, and live with them. Tetchie chooses between safety and what she knows to be right. Maisie will do anything to live up to her responsibilities, even if it destroys her own peace of mind. Susanna refuses to take the easy way out when life gets rough. Lesli stands her ground when all is bleak, rather than wait passively for a rescue. Apples and Cassie both weigh the options, and do what their hearts tell them is right for each other. Marguerite overcomes selfishness to help a friend. These are inspiring examples, and ones that stem from the real world. The magic that appears in every story isn't always overt and recognizable; sometimes it's the magic of the heart or the creative spirit.
I recommend Waifs and Strays without reservation. Perhaps I'm predisposed towards liking de Lint's works; after all, I've seen many of the stories before and enjoyed them then. But there's enough here to win over any new reader. For those who like Harry Potter, these are the grown-up, more complex, more realistic, cooler siblings, the ones without the safety net of Hogwarts or the cackling villainy of Valdemort. This is a book no de Lint fan will want to miss, as undoubtedly there's something new in it for everyone.
[Michael M Jones]