Classic tale revisited: ‘A Wild Winter Swan’ by Gregory Maguire
October 5, 2020
Imagine you have read a fairy tale and later, a character from that story appears at your bedroom window.
This is the startling premise of A Wild Winter Swan, when sixteen-year-old Laura is confronted by a boy with a swan’s wing instead of one arm, who hurtles into her window on a snowy New York City night in the 1960’s. The story she’d earlier read aloud to her young charges at an after-school group was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans.
The young man in her bedroom is a personification of the twelfth brother from that tale, forever stuck between human and swan form.
Laura already has a lot going on in her life. Kicking against the constraints of living with her Italian grandparents and the tragedies of her family, she’s been suspended from school for a prank gone wrong. Her internal life is rich: she longs to be a writer but fears she lacks the skill, so instead she narrates scenes and events around her as if she is a character in a story. (As an aside, I used to do the exact same thing as a child.)
The novel takes place during the two days leading up to Christmas, and the household is frantically busy preparing for a special dinner at which Laura’s grandparents hope to impress a potential investor in their business. Amid the bustle, Laura must hide the swan boy until she can figure out how to release him safely back to the wild out of which he so unexpectedly arrived.
This coming-of-age story explores family, the migrant experience in America, teenage longing, and the place of stories, within a deceptively simple but multilayered tale.
An added pleasure is the time setting and the references to popular culture of the sixties, taking the reader back to a time that was turbulent and full of change, reflecting Laura’s thoughts and her teenage life.
The magic and the everyday sit comfortably together:
Besides, thought the girl, what miracle didn’t look ridiculous while it was happening? If a miracle looked ordinary it would be like, just, so what?
A Wild Winter Swan p190
Readers who like to do a deep dive into character, with a dollop of magical realism, will enjoy A Wild Winter Swan.
A Wild Winter Swan is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.