Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Ottawa Sun | Toronto Sun | Winnipeg Sun
1 Nov 2021
Special to the Washington Post Williams is a book reviewer, arts and culture writer and editor
When author Patti Callahan began delving into the life of C.S. Lewis, it was by way of his often mentioned but seldom explored wife, Joy Davidman.
Three years after publishing her first historical novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Callahan returns to that fertile ground with Once Upon a Wardrobe, revisiting the year Lewis spent in Oxford, working on his most famous book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Set in December 1950, the novel follows Margaret Louise Devonshire (Megs), a logic-minded 17-year-old student of mathematics and physics as she takes on a task given to her by her dying eight-year-old brother George. He wants Megs to ask the author of the recently released novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a question: “Where did Narnia come from?”
As luck would have it, Megs attends Somerville College, a pleasant stroll away from where Lewis teaches at the Magdalen College for men. But Megs' love for logic has made her wary of her task. When George explains that he has to know if Narnia — land of talking beavers — is real, Megs balks. “It's a book for children,” she says. “Of course it's not real.”
Or is it? As Lewis explains during their first visit together at his home, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning.”
On every subsequent visit, Lewis tells Megs a story about his life, including an upbringing spent making up tales with his brother Warnie. When Lewis talks about caring for children affected by the Second World War, Megs and George are delighted; could this be the inspiration for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? What begins as a dubious mission for Megs soon changes her. As a skeptic, she refuses to acknowledge the important role stories play in human life. But as she becomes a storyteller herself, she also becomes a believer. “My heart has opened up in a swirl of laughter and wind, sweeping aside logic that had kept me so locked up,” she says.
Love, commitment, family and hope are strong themes in the novel. Each family member demonstrates a tender allegiance to one another, even when things seem dismal.