NESFA Members' Reviews

The Wild Swans

by Peg Kerr

Warner Books, 1999, ISBN 0-446-67366-8

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Kerr tells two stories in alternating chapters, the story of Eliza, in the seventeenth century, whose stepmother has enchanted her eleven brothers so that they are swans by day and men only by night, and the story of Elias, in the early eighties in New York, whose parents have kicked him out. They're both interesting, compelling stories, and I enjoyed both them. I don't, though, see the close parallels between them that Kerr says in an afterword motivated her, beyond a rather tenuous theme of "what's family". The motivations of the parental units are different, their actions are different, the responses of Eliza and Elias are different, and the outcomes are different. One is severely let down by adopted family; every important member of the other's adopted family stands firm. One succeeds in defeating the evil that oppresses them; the other can only defeat it in spirit. One story is fantasy; the other is mainstream mimetic fiction.

On the other hand, each contains an obvious mistake about an easily checked background detail. (Witches were not burned alive in England; Catholic priests released from their vows retain the power to perform the sacraments.)

I have one additional complaint about Elias' story. There's someone at the beginning who helps him survive his first days on the streets, and tries to teach him survival skills for living in the streets. When Elias gets a chance to get off the streets, he quite rightly jumps at it. From the point of view of that first person to befriend him, though, he must have seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth, in circumstances where his having gotten killed would not be out of the question. When Eliza walks away from the people who know her, some of whom care about her, she has a compelling reason for not attempting any contact with them again, at least until after the end of the story. Elias, though, had some options for at least attempting to get word to his street friend that he didn't die bleeding in an alley, even if he didn't want to make direct contact--a personal ad, for instance. As far as the reader can tell from the text of the story, though, Elias never thinks about that person again, once his luck changes.

But I repeat that these are both good stories, and I enjoyed both of them. Kerr does a good job of making the reader care about each of her protagonists, and the problems that confront them.

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