Patti Callahan’s new book, "Once Upon a Wardrobe," is at its heart an origin story, but its own origins are clear.
Just a couple of years ago, Callahan had a great success with her novel “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” in which she tells the story of the unusual courtship of American poet Joy Davidman, a Jewish atheist, and C. S. Lewis, known as Jack, Oxford don and one of the world’s most famous and articulate defenders of Christianity.
Callahan became entranced by the story of Lewis’ life and has chosen to tell that story as a fictional investigation into the origins of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
The framing story threatens to become a little sentimental from time to time, but finally it really works.
In Worcester, England in 1950, George Devonshire, an 8-year-old boy, has a weak heart and is not expected to live very long at all. His parents and his older sister, Megs, are sad beyond measure but there seems to be no hope, no cure.
As writers have known for centuries, generating emotion for an afflicted child is shooting fish in a barrel. We all feel for Tiny Tim, and for Stowe’s Little Eva, but George is special.
Bright, clever, he lacks any self-pity and seems clearly named after England’s patron, Saint George the dragon slayer.
In George’s sickroom there is a well-read copy of Lewis’ novel and there is a wardrobe. He sits in the wardrobe sometimes and ponders. He knows the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy and Narnia and Aslan and the White Witch is fiction, not real, but wants to know: Where did that story come from? His sister Megs is a student at Oxford University, a short train ride away, and George tasks her with asking Lewis himself, the author, for the answer.
What follows is a series of magical encounters between Megs and Jack Lewis and his brother Warnie.
Megs goes to Lewis’ estate, the Kilns, and is graciously invited in, given strong tea and friendship. Each time Megs asks Lewis about the origins of the tale, Lewis answers with a story, usually a chapter in his own life: the wretched public school he attended, his time in France in World War I.
Megs takes notes and relates that section to George but, of course, there is no one-to-one correspondence between events and persons in the author’s life and events and characters in the book.
At first this can be frustrating for Megs, a math major who believes in proofs, and for George, and the reader, but we all come to see that the world is held together by story, not by physics. There are an infinite number of stories and layers of meaning. “To Mr. Lewis, life isn’t a math equation.”
Lewis explains, “The fantastic and the imaginative aren’t escapism … good stories introduce the marvelous” sending us back “with renewed pleasure to the actual world.”
And as Megs says near the end “we are enchanted not by being able to explain it all, but by its very mystery.” Can we explain where our ideas come from?
Callahan has woven several stories beautifully together here. We learn of Lewis’ life, we admire George’s great courage, and we follow Megs’s maturation into young womanhood as she falls in love with an irrepressible young Irishman.
“Wardrobe” is also a smart and subtle treatise on art, fiction, myth, fairy tale, make-believe, and finally truth, which is not a collection of facts but constructed by an infinite number of bits and pieces, tangled together, which make up a life story, make up a life. I was impressed by this novel and also genuinely moved by it.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.
“Once Upon a Wardrobe”
Author: Patti Callahan
Price: $24.99 (Hardcover)