The Old Country
by Mordicai Gerstein
This slim book is by a prolific children's author and illustrator whose previous book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
, won the 2004 Caldecott Medal and has been adapted into both an animated short film and a ballet. Even so, it would have to be a book of incredible lyricism to top this story, in which a boy's great grandmother tells him how she lived both as a poor peasant girl and as a fox—bushy tail and all—back in the Old Country. The result is a strange, terrible, wonderful, gently touching, yet deeply troubling tale, seemingly universal in its themes but also susceptible to a variety of very specific allegorical interpretations. It could be about something that happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or about something that happened to the Jews under Nazi Germany, or about something that happened in Russia any time in the past few centuries. Or it could be about evils that are at home anywhere, at any time. It is a story about war and genocide, ethnic prejudice and totalitarian oppression, magic and family and pain and love, and the possibility of the world's most powerless people overcoming the malice of the very powerful. It is about what makes people human—and how dumb animals sometimes have more of it than some people.
Gisella's family lived in the Old Country so long ago that no one can be sure what country it is now. One day Gisella's older brother Tavido marches off to war, pledging to fight for his country, even though his family comes from a despised minority group that has no country of its own. While one side of the war rounds up the Crags for extermination and the other side sends them to the front lines unarmed, Gisella gets caught up in a magical adventure involving a thieving fox, a cat with a night-school law degree, and a forest courtroom with a spider judge and a jury of birds. By the time the dust settles, Gisella has swapped bodies with the fox, and her family has joined an exodus of refugees, taking with them the fox in Gisella's body. The poor girl must learn to live as a fox and find a way to save her family, and indeed her whole people, aided only by a dancing bear and a tiny faerie named Quick.
It doesn't seem like she could have much of a chance. Yet chance favors Gisella through a series of encounters with the brutal forces of both sides in the war, a visit to an appalling prison camp, and a peace conference between two monstrous monarchs who are ready to divide up the world between them over a hen that lays golden eggs. How this self-same hen, together with Gisella, her animal friends, her witchy great aunt, and her war-wounded brother, manage to turn the tables for the good of millions, is a feat that will amaze you, and even perhaps move you to tears. But the greatest surprise in the tale is one the great grandmother saves for last, one that made my heart brim full as I turned the last page of this beautiful book.
Readers touched by this book may be interested to know the titles of some of Gerstein's other books, which include Bible-story retellings, alphabets, and a guide for drawing pictures of birds. Wiki lists a number of them, including the interesting-sounding Stop Those Pants, Behind the Couch, and The Shadow of a Flying Bird.
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Recommended Age: 9+
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