I have a special place in my heart for fiction that features mythology – perhaps it stems from being raised on the tales of Greek and Norse gods and the relevant adaptations. This particular book focuses on the myth of a changeling, also known as “Podmyonish” in Slavic tales and “Wechselbalg” in Germanic folklore. They have other names in other cultures, but they are commonly presumed to be fairy-type beings that kidnap human children and take their place. Historically, superstitious people believed sick and deformed kids to be changelings and there have been several instances where the law has acquitted the parents who murdered their children because of this.
The poem with the same name by W. B. Yeats, based on the Irish version of the myth, has inspired Keith Donohue to write the book. It tells a story of two beings. One of them is Aniday (formerly Henry Day), a human child who has been kidnapped by the mysterious creatures who seem to be several hundred years old, yet never age. The other is Henry Day, a former human turned changeling turned human again, who assumes the identity of the stolen child and takes his place in the human world. He has to adjust to that world and modern culture and he cannot make his family and friends suspicious. However, he cannot hide his exceptional talent for piano, which the real Henry has never displayed. As he grows up, his father slowly realises that he has been raising an impostor, but everyone else is in awe of “Henry’s” musical skills. What “Henry” doesn’t know, or wishes to remember, is his life as a human before the changelings took him. As he begins to raise a child of his own, however, he realises that he needs to do so, otherwise his son would be taken away by the creatures.
Meanwhile, Aniday struggles to fit in with his new family. They steal, they use fights to resolve conflicts and they don’t understand the point of education or keeping up with the calendar. Only one girl, Speck, understands that Aniday needs to read in order to stay sane. Reading, after all, is one of the only things left for him to hold on to. So they sneak into libraries together while everyone else is hunting for food or cigarettes. Soon, however, Aniday realises that living as a wild changeling is even worse than he thought. The lives of Henry Day and Aniday may be separate, but they are still connected to each other,
The story is told from two viewpoints – Henry Day’s and Aniday’s. Even though they have the same name, it is very easy to tell whose chapter is whose – the way Donohue writes both narratives is similar in some respects – for example, both stories feature heavily the theme of loss of innocence and search of a lost identity – but the two characters pursue their goals very differently. While Henry Day tries his best to fit into the human community without raising suspicion, Aniday directs his best efforts to preserving his human identity and, even though he nearly forgets who he really is, some part of him holds onto it very tightly. These two distinct characters and their motivations, as well as their common themes, are the best part of “The Stolen Child”.
What I really loved was, what I consider to be the core theme of the book, summarised in one quote on page 264, UK edition. “Behind every child’s bright eyes exists a hidden universe”. In only 9 words, Donohue has managed to convey the thing that most adults do not realise in relation to children. The universe behind their eyes is awaiting to be filled with emotions, facts and stories. Mainly stories, according to Donohue. His characters, particularly Aniday and later Henry Day, know that stories live in children forever, and they hold on to these stories because more often than not, during the course of the book, it’s the only thing they have. Like I said above, to Aniday, books and stories mean that his past life can never really be forgotten and that there is a way for him to hold onto it. For Henry Day, stories mean re-discovering who he was, and who he can yet be. Even the creatures themselves, the changelings, are arguably an allegorical representation of stories every child needs.
It can be said, however, that I was unable to get into the book until about halfway through, when Henry Day became an adult. The first part of it, despite all the fairytaley bits, felt like a real-life biography/account of two different people. However, I must say that I was only able to squeeze in a chapter or two during the breaks between my final law school exams; therefore, my reading was sporadic at best. Reading only one chapter in 3 days made me lose the imprint fantasy narratives usually leave in my head, which perhaps resulted in me not enjoying the first half of the book as much. However, I was done with my finals by the time I got to the second half, which I really enjoyed. The overall conclusion is that I should not attempt to read good stories while taking exams. Usually, fantasy would have served as an escapism method for me. However, this is not the kind of fantasy – too many elements of realism, which I suppose is what urban fantasies are about. I felt the same with “The Ocean of the Lane”. With all this in mind, I am going to nevertheless rate “The Stolen Child” 7/10.
Henry Day – we may think of him as a soulless changeling at first, but there is a lot more to him that meets the eye.
“Behind every child’s bright eyes exists a hidden universe”
“My understanding is that an author doesn’t write a book without having one or more readers in mind. One doesn’t go through the time and effort to be the only reader of your own book. Even the diarist expects the lock to be picked”
“Everyone has an unnameable secret too dire to confess to friend or lover, priest or psychiatrist, too entwined at the core to excise without harm. Some people choose to ignore it; others bury it deep and lug it unspoken to the grave. We mask it so well that even the body sometimes forgets the secret exists”
Aniday/Young Henry – Dylan Schmid
Henry Day – James Lafferty
You might like “The Stolen Child” if you liked:
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs
“Little, Big” by John Crowley