Book Review: What-the-Dickens, by Gregory Maguire

By and large, I’m a fan of Maguire.  I appreciate how he has made a career out of turning well-known stories on their collective heads.  He what the dickenscontinues that run – to an extent – with his “Toothfairies:  the True Story” fable, What-the-Dickens.

The book cover gives us the story’s setting:  it’s a wild, stormy night.  The house perched precariously on the valley’s edge shelters three young children and their 20-something cousin.  The children’s parents have left under somewhat mysterious  circumstances, the entire area has evacuated, the power is out, there is no food.  How to pass the time, calm the nerves, weather the storm?  The cousin begins a story.  HIS story, apparently, and the story of What-the-Dickens.

Turns out What-the-Dickens is a tooth fairy – orphaned and born in a tuna can, he doesn’t know what he really is until he stumbles upon another fairy at work (Pepper).  He is then introduced to the fairy world, its rules and customs and beliefs.  He tries to figure out how and where he fits in, while growing closer and more loyal to Pepper.  The story is told in fits and starts as we also learn about the condition of the children and the status of the storm.

I think What-the Dickens can be read two ways:  as a straight-across fairy tale aimed at mainly 5th-8th graders.  Or it can be read with more adult undertones of religious and political themes.  There is some discussion of faith, purpose, and sacrifice.  And war, aggression, and territory.  I wouldn’t say there is enough fodder for philosophical debates or personal paradigm shifts, but there is a little meat to gnaw off the bone.

Maguire’s talent with words does not disappoint, and the character of What-the-Dickens is a wonderfully complicated little skibbereen (the technical term for “tooth fairy”).  He is at times simple, and yet honest and full of heart.  If I’m being honest, I’ll have to say that I cared more about the fate of the little sprite than I did about those stuck in the storm.

Related Link:  NY times book review