The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein

Cover of "The Old Country"
Cover of The Old Country

At a recent trip to Half-Price Books I picked up The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein.  It fit right into my interests of late: myths and fables, young adult fiction, etc.  When contemplating writing a review, I thought one way to look at this interesting book is through what you might call dueling reviews.

School Library Journal:

Framed as an elderly immigrant’s story, this overly ambitious tale transpires in a war-torn Balkanesque country in which various factions fight for possession of the land while everyone wishes to oust the Crags. When her brother is conscripted and goes off to war, young Gisella is left to hunt for and kill a chicken-stealing fox that has terrorized her family. However, a trial is held among the forest animals and the fox is exonerated for her “crimes.” In spite of her lifelong warnings, Gisella looks too long into its eyes and she and the fox trade shapes. War separates the humans from the now fox-girl and her animal companions, but they arereunited in prison. A shape-shifting woodland sprite and an enigmatic “owl person” appear to explain the human ravages on the magical world at a “crossroads,” where animals can communicate with humans. Through them, Gerstein explores whether evil is inherent in the world, the costs of war, and the existence of magic. Elements of fantasy and traditional literature are threaded through the realistic and semi-historical horrors of war. This pastiche of theme and genre, tone and voice confuses readers’ expectations and ultimately dilutes the story’s power. Humor follows horror. Buffoonish royalty is overthrown by covetous generals, Gisella’s blinded brother recovers his sight via some gruesome magic and leads the fight for a Crag homeland, and the baffling outcome of the fox/girl body swap may put off readers as well. This is a challenging burgoo of a novel and a rambling character-ridden tale that may have a difficult time finding and holding an audience.

Versus

Publishers Weekly

Gerstein (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers) skillfully shapes a story by turns disturbing and comforting. His hybrid of fantasy and fable explores such themes as human nature, war, magic and music. The tale within a tale opens as Gisella visits her great granddaughter, gives her a present and shares a story of her childhood in the Old Country, where, she says, “I was a little girl and where I was a fox.” Gisella builds on this note of intrigue, as she describes her wise great-aunt warning her that in the woods “things may not be what they seem. Things change; now it’s this, then it’s that. Look closely, be careful, and never look too long into the eyes of a fox.” Indeed, danger befalls the young Gisella when her brother is drafted into the army, and it’s up to her to kill the fox who’s been stealing the family’s chickens. Deep in the woods, strange things occur-talking animals and “small people.” The girl finds herself gazing intently into the fox’s eyes, and the two mysteriously exchange bodies. Meanwhile, war breaks out (“Air that had been full of springtime now had a new odor, bitter and jagged. It was the smell of pain, and it was everywhere”), sending Gisella on a labyrinthine journey with a forest sprite as her guide. Gerstein brilliantly ties the war’s escalation with the dwindling of magic, and caps off this vividly descriptive narrative with an unexpected ending.

My thoughts on the above reviews below.

Start with the basic critique of the first review:

Elements of fantasy and traditional literature are threaded through the realistic and semi-historical horrors of war. This pastiche of theme and genre, tone and voice confuses readers’ expectations and ultimately dilutes the story’s power.

It seems to me this is an overly academic, even literary, critique for a story of this nature.  I think this is given away by the term of pastiche.  The key to this term is how you use it:

1. a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.

2. an incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.

Our reviewer clearly means #2.  But what if the author meant it as #1?  In fact, I think the story works because it is #1 particularly for adult readers.

It has the feel of classic fairy tales – of myths and legends – and yet also of fantasy and magical stories in general.  These basic motifs or genres allow readers to situate the book in a familiar place.  In such a short work the author doesn’t have to set the stage all that much as we quickly understand what kind of story we are dealing with.

I am not sure how it confuses readers nor dilutes the story’s power.  But I guess it depends on your expectation.  If you don’t expect humor to follow horror then you might be thrown off.  If you expect a single, and perfectly matched, theme or tone then you might be confused.

But I think PW got it write in describing it as a “hybrid of fantasy and fable” that “explores such themes as human nature, war, magic and music.”  And a “tale within a tale” that “shapes a story by turns disturbing and comforting.”

There is an unsettling aspect to the story because it deals with some difficult topics and refuses clear cut or simple answers.  Gisella wrestles with human nature and the nature of evil.  And Mordicai presents these as difficult and elusive ideas to come to grips with and offers no clear cut answer(s) not even a traditional happy ending; or the ending you might have expected.

But what he does offer is an enchanting tale that captures the feel of old world fairy tales and uses it to present heavy topics to young people without losing his wit or sounding preachy or educational.  It is both entertainment and food for thought.  No mean feat, that.

The Old Country may be a burgoo but I found it to be a tasty one.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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