“‘Very poorly,’ the woodsman said. ‘My family and I have not eaten for three days, and if I do not find food for them soon I fear we will all die.’
“‘I can help you,’ the man said. ‘But you must promise to give me the first thing you see when you return home today.'”
All long-time readers of fairy tales are familiar with stories that begin like this, or similar to this, and they all involve people who are down on their luck who are mysteriously offered a great boon. The boon isn’t free because it involves a bargain that may change the lives of a family throughout time forever.
Just stories, of course, with morals in them about getting something for nothing, being too quick to give away something not clearly specified, and trusting anything that happens at crossroads, boundaries and other undertain places.
In Lisa Goldstein’s wonderful contemporary fantasy “The Uncertain Places,” protagonist Will Taylor looks back on the events that occurred after his college roommate Ben introduced him to Livvy Feierabend in 1971. Will is smitten with Livvy; Ben is smitten with Livvy’s sister Maddie. Livvy and Maddie live with their mother Sylvie and younger sister Rose in an odd and rambling house in the Napa Valley.
Will notices on his first trip to Napa that Sylvie is rather scattered. On subsequent visits, it becomes more and more obvious that the house and the family are, in ways that cannot be pinned down, also scattered as though they aren’t quite living in the here and now, or that if they are present in the here and now, that the line between the family’s house and vineyard on one hand and their secrets on the other hand is not altogether well defined.
Will and Ben slowly discover that stories they always believed were “just stories” might be more than that. How exactly did the Brothers Grimm come by old fairytales about woodsmen and witches in their famous books of “Children’s Tales” published in multiple editions beginning in 1812? Growing up, the Feierabend sisters were not allowed to read fairytales. How odd. But Will finds out why, and that “why” has to do with the kinds of fortune and fate that befall those who find themselves confronted by friendly helpers in the uncertain places.
The consequences of decisions made in such places are forever. There’s good fortune, to be sure. But it comes at a price, one that Will doesn’t want Livvy to pay. All of this happened in California during the rather abnormal times of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Will narrates the events that followed the weekend when he became smitten with Livvy Feierabend as though he’s telling a fairytale that contains fairy tales.
Will’s telling of the story is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, but also a lingering weakness. Looking back, as he is, Will places Ben, Livvy, Rose, Maddie and Sylvie into the world of “once upon a time,” and this adds to the ephemeral nature of “The Uncertain Places.” The Feierabend sisters’ world is vague in all the secret ways magic and boundary areas are vague, and that makes them all the more plausible and delightful.
The flasback structure of the novel also blurs the impact of the story because there periods of normal reality in between the odd events Will is telling us about. Readers who are more accustomed to constantly forward-moving plot might say, “get back to the story.” While these gaps filled with normacy are not large, they are somewhat distracting.
Nonetheless, the novel sparkles like stars and faerie lights in the woods and old secrets on the cusp of revelation, and is highly recommended for all lovers of fantasy whose ancestors didn’t make long-term bargains with those they met in uncertain places.
Update, August 2012: Novel wins 2012 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature
—Malcolm R. Campbell, author of contemporary fantasies. including the “Sarabande”