The Old Country

Mordi­cai Gerstein
  • Review
By – August 6, 2012

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. 

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