Verlyn Flieger, Pig Tale (Hyperion, 2002)

The structures and archetypes of myth are excellent tools to construct new stories that resonate as well as any thousand-year-old tale. Creating a story in this manner requires a light touch; too much reliance on myth or heavy-handed and clumsy borrowings can create a story built like a Rube Goldberg device — awkward and impossibly complex to get the job done. Properly managed, the new tale can stand on its own with the best mythical stories.

Verlyn Flieger's Pig Tale is definitely in the latter category. Flieger deftly weaves elements of Celtic mythology into a story of humanity's fear and hatred of the unknown and our all-too-common search for scapegoats. Echoing Jackson's "The Lottery," Pig Tale is the story of Mokie, an abandoned orphan who finds pigs better company than people. Mokie ultimately finds her place and purpose in the world despite the efforts of the villagers, who barely tolerate her existence. Her purpose is tied to a pig named Apple, whom she takes with her when fleeing the village of Little Wicken and the teenagers who brutalize her.

Like all good fairy tales, Pig Tale has a dark side. Death is never far from the story; Flieger keeps a dark undercurrent present from the beginning. The plot builds carefully, gradually adding tension and creating an inevitable chain of events that feeds on the hopes and fears of the human, as well as the inhuman, characters. Flieger keeps the natural juxtaposition of life and death always close at hand to lead the readers towards Mokie's fate. The ritual of the farrow field, and Little Wicken's need to renew the fertility of their land and pigs, dovetail with their fear of the unknown. Mokie, a foundling and outsider, symbolizes that fear.

The discovery of Mokie in the farrow field is an unnatural event, life appearing in a place dedicated to death. This makes Mokie an easy target and a scapegoat for all that goes wrong in the village. She disrupts the natural order simply by existing. When Mokie flees with Apple, she crystallizes her position as the target for Little Wicken's fear and hatred. Her association with strangers then makes her even more of an outsider. It is a small step then for her to go from being marginalized to dehumanized. Finally, Little Wicken shows no concern about targeting her for abuse. But because Pig Tale is a fairy story, Mokie's suffering is not pointless. She and Apple are two halves of a single being; either could be the victim, and so both also share in their ultimate redemption.

The only thing that left me uncertain about Pig Tale is the intended audience. The novel was published by the children's books division of Hyperion and can be found in the teen or young adult section of bookstores. Though most of the story works well for this age group, the rape of Mokie (a crucial event that directs the course of the plot) is too harsh to include in a book directed at younger readers. The book would be more appropriately directed at a slightly older audience or even adults.

[Eric Eller]

More information on Verlyn Flieger's work and the courses she teaches at the University of Maryland can be found at her Web site.