Updated: Jan 24
NOVEMBER 7, 2021
“Once Upon a Wardrobe” by Patti Callahan. Harper Muse. 320 pp. $24.99.
Review provided by The Washington Post.
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 8-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 at Oxford University, a pleasant stroll away from where Mr. Lewis teaches at 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 and the evil White Witch – is real, Megs balks.
“It’s a book for children,” she says. “Of course it’s not real.”
Or is it?
As Mr. Lewis explains during their first visit together at his home, the Kilns, “Reason is how we get to the truth, but imagination is how we find meaning.”
On every subsequent visit, Mr. Lewis tells Megs a story about his life, including an upbringing spent making up tales with his brother, Warnie. When Mr. Lewis talks about caring for children affected by World War II, Megs and George are delighted: Could this be the direct 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. “Logic – it can’t help me in the soul things that matter.”
Love, commitment, family and, most of all, hope are strong themes in the novel. Each Devonshire family member demonstrates a tender allegiance to one another, even when things seem dismal. Mum has thrown herself into garden work, and Megs knows why: “She can’t keep George alive, but she can keep the flowers and vegetables growing under her care.” Dad, whose character development is comparatively flat, shows a softer side when he finally reads “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and encourages George to speak about it.
Devoid of bells and whistles, the story moves with ease and takes on a childlike tone, particularly in scenes with George’s character. Some scenes are particularly vivid: “The midafternoon sun sits like an egg yolk in a sea of clear blue, faded in winter hues,” Callahan writes. “Students rush into and out of the building, little clouds coming from their mouths or cigarettes or both.”
“Once Upon a Wardrobe” is a beautiful follow-up to “Becoming Mrs. Lewis.” It’s a love letter to books and stories with a meaningful message. Megs and her family learn that fantastical tales are more than mere ways to appease young children. Stories are nourishment for the souls that need joy the most, and sometimes they’re the only thing that can help us understand life.
– Reviewed by Keishel Williams, who is a book reviewer, arts and culture writer and editor.