The Old Country begins like a folktale and turns into a darker fantasy, with no pictures save the cover. It expands the mystical moment where a human and an animal exchange identities from Gerstein’s reader Fox Eyes (2001) into a short chapter book. It also loudly decries the destruction caused by war and by irrational prejudice against a single people, here represented by a group called the Crags. Golden-eyed Gisella is telling her curious great-grandchild a story from the old country across the ocean. In this story, the 12-year-old is warned by her greataunt never to stare into a fox’s eyes, but does so on the morning when she goes hunting for the fox who stole her family’s chickens, which is also the morning her brother is conscripted into the Surland army. In the next, fateful moment, Gisella finds herself in the fox’s body. The fox Flame runs back to join Gisella’s family as a girl. Gisella goes after Flame to reclaim her own body. All the while, the earth is thumping with the sounds of war. Wounded soldiers and refugees from both sides wander toward each other’s territory for safety. In the journey which follows, Gisella, a moth she has befriended, and the chicken April (whose simple-mindedness provides comic relief) meet a wounded bear and form a dancing circus act to try to rescue her imprisoned family. Gisella, at first horrified by her fox nature, begins to enjoy hunting small animals for food. The story leads to a surprising conclusion.
Adult readers will recognize the historical and literary references here. Both Flame’s trial by woodland creatures and later that of the enemy rulers, who say they are “the law” and cannot be tried by “a bunch of animals and bugs,” cry Alice in Wonderland. Gisella’s family having to dig their own graves under the soldiers’ guns and the hounding of Crags just because they are Crags echo the Holocaust and more recent “ethnic cleansings” in Bosnia and Sudan.
Is it wrong for a fox to eat chickens for food? Is it right for the Crags themselves to retaliate and hang their tormentors — just as the Israelis executed Eichmann? Who is to judge? Gerstein’s questions about right and wrong and our own sit beside lyrical passages. As in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Penguin, 1991), The Old Country is a place where ordinary human life and family love may be interrupted by magical transformation, violence, and government stupidity and sent in other directions. It will appeal most to young adults who will see it as a fable and best appreciate the mix of playful magic, absurdity, and serious graphic verbal images. For ages 12 – 16.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.