Iain Lawrence's new novel, The Giant-Slayer, is a wonderful exploration of the power of the imagination and of how stories shape our lives as much as our lives shape the stories that we tell. Set during an epidemic, the novel seems eerily timely. But this is a story replete with unsettling coincidences and unexpected crossovers, so it is very much in the spirit of the book that it should so vividly evoke the 1950s' fears of polio in the midst of 2009's fears of an entirely other illness.
The picture the novel offers of the ravages of polio is quite uncompromising, especially given Lawrence's intended audience. The descriptions of children in iron lungs are honest, although gently offered, and the toll the disease took is never downplayed.
The stories of the individual children who are struck with polio are also difficult, the complexities of challenging lives made that much more challenging by a brutal illness. The book's exploration of how bonds are created among lonely and isolated children, of the emerging social dynamic among them, is sensitively wrought. These bonds, however, are as much the result of the power of stories as of the challenges of illness.
There in the respiratory room of the polio ward, Laurie Valentine visits her young friend Dickie Espinosa; she does so against the wishes of her father, who works for the March of Dimes and so is very much aware of the realities of polio. She does so, too, despite her initial discomfort and uncertainties. She is afraid of showing her pity for Dickie and the other children, locked in their iron lungs, and she is afraid she risks offending and insulting them, especially the moody and difficult Carolyn Jewels, with ill-chosen words.
In an effort to smooth over an awkward moment, she begins to tell a story, as she has in the past to Dickie. But this story turns out to be a thing unto itself: It begins to live for the children with such power and intensity that it changes each of them.
It is the story of Jimmy, son of Fingal, a very small boy destined to be a giant-slayer. There's a wonderful crew of characters: Fingal, the greedy innkeeper; Khan, the unicorn hunter; the Swamp Witch; Finnegan Flanders, the drover; a band of Gypsies; a host of gnomes; wishmen and tellmen, and Colosso the Giant. There are manticores, hydras, tigers, dragons and gryphons, a delightful hodge-podge of myth and folktale, and all quite wonderfully managed. The mixing of cultures and legends never seems to matter, since the story is the fabrication of an 11-year-old narrator.
As it unfolds, the children in the respiratory room add their own elements to the story, especially Dickie, the youngest, who eagerly participates in the telling. And more children come to listen, first James Miner, a young boy who has to move about on a treatment board (a small wheeled board, low to the ground, on which he lies while pulling himself along the floor with his hands), then other children.
It's Dickie who first begins to see that the story has a power greater than merely to distract. He begins to dream of it, insisting that at night, in his sleep, the story continues. And he does seem to know things about the characters even before Laurie mentions them. Soon strange, small coincidences become increasingly apparent; the resemblance between the children and the characters in the story continues to emerge, often with regard to details Laurie, the storyteller, could never know.
The children also begin to see the story's symbolic relevance to their lives: Some readers might be bothered by the children's insistence that the giant in the story is polio, and it is mentioned perhaps more pointedly and more often than is needed, but the connection is integral not only to the workings of the story that Laurie and the other children make, but also to the larger purpose of Lawrence's novel. The book is about how we create stories, how we live inside them, but also how we understand their impact upon our lives. It seems only right, then, that the children who co-create this story should also be actively engaged in interpreting it for themselves.
As the children's connection to the story intensifies, the bounds between reality and story seem to blur. Lawrence, of course, has prepared for that blurring from the very beginning, not only with the overtly metaphorical names of such characters as Jewels, Freeman and Valentine, but also with his first chapter and his first pages. The book begins with the story of the girl who saw the future. How that first brief story reveals itself at the end of the book is crucial to the resolution of the whole, and to the lives of all of the children involved. For, as Khan the hunter explains to Jimmy the giant-slayer at one point in their journey: "Life's a story, and you can tell it any way you want."
Marnie Parsons is a printer and publisher in St. John's, Newfoundland.