Fire and Hemlock

One of the great sorrows of my reading life is that I had no one directing my reading much when I was a child. I was a big reader, and I read some good books, but I rarely ventured beyond popular contemporary fiction (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary); series fiction (Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Little House books); and fairly recent Newbery Award winners (Dicey’s Song, Jacob Have I Loved ). These were mostly popular books that I found on my own. This means that there are huge gaps in my childhood reading, and Diana Wynne Jones falls into one of those gaps. It also means that I was utterly charmed when the central character in Fire and Hemlock, Polly, begins receiving gifts of great children’s books from her mysterious older friend Thomas Lynn.

The book begins when Polly is 19 and getting ready to return for a semester at Oxford. As she packs her things, she starts to look back and realizes that her memories have gone a little fuzzy. One of her books doesn’t contain the stories she remembered, and the picture on her wall looks different from how she thought. It’s as if she has two sets of memories. When did this doubling begin? As Polly looks back, she realizes that the doubling started when she was about 10 years old, on the day she met Thomas Lynn. The bulk of the book is the story of that friendship.

I had thought of Diana Wynne Jones only as a fantasy author, and what struck me about this book is how much of it is grounded totally in real-life drama. Aside from the double memory, which readers could easily forget after the first chapter, the first half of the book contains hardly any fantasy at all, unless you count the stories of adventure that Polly and Mr. Lynn make up together.

And, oh, the real-life drama is so well-done! Polly’s parents are divorcing as the book begins, and the dynamics are so raw and real. Polly happens to be about the age I was when my parents divorced, and everything about it rang true to me—although lucky for me, my parents were never as infuriating as Polly’s parents. It’s actually Polly’s responses to her parents’ strange behavior that resonated with me. I might have been a hair past needing it when this book was published, but I do wish someone had put it in my hands back then. I could go on and on about the other things Jones gets right: the ways friendships among adolescent girls shift and change, teenage crushes and jealousy, the process of figuring out what you’re good at.

The book and writing talk was equally exciting. Mr. Lynn sends Polly so many books that I wish I had read at her age (and some I have yet to get to). And the book is full of letters! (I do love an epistolary novel.) These letters are particularly wonderful because they are totally unpolished. Polly’s spelling is abominable and Mr. Lynn can’t type at all! Such fun!

The real-life elements took me by surprise, but I also enjoyed the slow creeping of the supernatural into the story. Early on, it’s in the form of coincidence. A town with a hardware store just like the one in Polly and Mr. Lynn’s story. A horse that appears just after the pair are discussing a horse. Later, it seems like there’s a purpose to the events—a creature made of trash and wind chases the friends down the street. But the fantasy is sometimes so subtle that it’s possible to believe it isn’t quite real, up until the end anyway.

My only complaint about the book has to do with the ending, which I thought was rushed and confusing. Rushed endings are a common problem in fantasy novels, and it’s a big issue here, especially when the pacing was so leisurely in the early chapters. I had to read the last couple of chapters multiple times to work out what happened. At this point, I think I know what happened (except for what happened with the horse, which I can’t sort out at all), but I’m confused about why. Why did Polly’s plan work? How did she even know to try this? I wonder if some of my confusion stems from my not previously knowing the story of Tam Lin that inspired the book. (I know! See above, re: lack of guidance in childhood reading.) I do love an ambiguous ending, but there’s a fine line between ambiguous and muddled, and Fire and Hemlock is just over the line into muddled territory for me.

I also wasn’t sure that the romance was necessary to the story. It perhaps is, given the Tam Lin connection (Is it a Tam Lin thing? Tell me!); but it felt thrown in. I wasn’t bothered, as some readers might be, by the age difference. Laurie King manages a similar pairing with Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, but she lets it grow slowly, which helps sell it to the readers. For the characters, the time line for Polly and Tom is not so different as for Mary and Sherlock, I suppose, but for this reader, it was sudden.

This was my first foray into Diana Wynne Jones, and I know many Shelf Love readers are fans, so I’d welcome suggestions for what to try next. And if you also have suggestions for versions of Tam Lin that I should read, I’d love those too. (I intend to look through some of my anthologies to see if I have a version of the original ballad, but I’m also interested in adaptations.)

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Fire and Hemlock

  1. Jenny says:

    Hooray! I knew you would like it! Aren’t the books wonderful? I hunted down most of the ones I hadn’t read. Tom’s Midnight Garden is fantastic. And don’t worry, I also had to read the end multiple times before feeling like I might, maybe, have gotten it. We’ll trade theories in NY. Reading the original ballad helps a lot! I also like Pamela Dean’s _Tam Lin_.

    She does emotions *so well*. Sigh.

    • Teresa says:

      I need to make a list of all the books mentioned that I haven’t read because all the ones I have read were great! And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who was uncertain about the end.

      And yes, the emotions blew me away.

  2. I MUST read this! It was on my wish-list but you have me itching to read it immediately, Teresa. Epistolary fantasy? I am so there. It sounds a bit like Daddy Long Legs with horses!

    Another Oxford novel… I’ve been going through a spate of them since reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which I also have you to thank for.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t want to oversell the Oxford angle. She doesn’t actually get there during the story–and the letters are only sprinkled through the book, but they’re so fun! Yes, you should read it.

      And hooray for the Beekeeper’s Apprentice! I’m always thrilled to turn someone else on to Mary Russell. (And she keeps getting better. I’m counting the days until book #11!)

  3. Eva says:

    I wish I could go back in time and add a few authors my own childhood TBR list! ;) (My mom was marvelous at getting books in my hands, and I read a lot of the children touchstones, but neither of us knew about some authors, like DWJ.) Funnily enough, though, I love DWJ so much now that I’m content I didn’t read her in childhood; so far, every one of her books that I’ve tried transports me back to how I used to read when I was younger. And it’s magical to experience that all over again. :)

    I’m a DWJ newbie, but in addition to this (which I reread a couple months ago and was even more fun this time around) I’ve read: Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol. One, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Time of the Ghost. The latter is more like F&H in its weaving of fantasy with the ‘real world,’ although the real world exists in the other two as well. I’d say my absolute favourite so far has been The Lives of Christopher Chant, the second in the Chrestomanci volume. But I’ve honestly loved them all, and I have Chrestomanci Vol. Two out from the library right now!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sure that even with more guidance there would be authors that I missed, but still… no one pointed me to fantasy, despite my love of fantasy TV and movies.

      It looks like lots of people are Chrestomanci fans, and I know my library has those, but I’ll also look for The Time of the Ghost for sure because that mix was so well-done here.

      • Eva says:

        Oh yes, I imagine that must be frustrating to you now! Fantasy was one of my mother’s main reading genres, so I grew up on it. In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised there was a ‘stigma’ attached to those who read it!

  4. Eva says:

    Forgot to subscribe: I want to see what suggestions you get! She has sooo many books, I’ve been reading them pretty much at random! lol

  5. Lisa says:

    I’d recommend that first two Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant. There is such a wonderful cast of recurring characters in the Chrestomanci books – starting of course with Chrestomanci himseslf and his amazing dressing gowns. I haven’t really connected with her other books, but then I don’t think I’ve read Fire and Hemlock.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I do think knowing the story of Tam Lin makes reading this particular book better–not that you can’t do it and then reread Fire and Hemlock! Try the version by Susan Cooper or Jane Yolen.

    • Teresa says:

      I did eventually look up Tam Lin on Wikipedia, but I got a Wikipedia-level understanding from that. But getting that knowledge would be a great excuse to reread this!

      And there’s a Susan Cooper Tam Lin? I lurve Susan Cooper (another author someone should have made me read as a child).

  7. Jenny says:

    This is by far the best Tam Lin book you’ll ever read, but I’m rather fond of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin as well. It’s extremely discursive then rushed at the end, but it is, at least, fairly clear. Meanwhile may I recommend the Fairport Convention version of the “Tam Lin” ballad?

    For further Diana Wynne Jones books, I would say, first clear your mind of any expectations, then pick any of her books at all. No two books of hers are even remotely similar, it seems to me. Archer’s Goon is one of my favorites, though, if you can find it; Deep Secret is good and set at a fantasy convention; and The Homeward Bounders is good and heartbreaking and full of mythology.

    Here ends the measured, reasonable version of my response.


    • Teresa says:

      I’m listening to the Fairport Convention Tam Lin now. How cool! None of my anthologies had the text of the ballad, but I found it online.

      And thanks for the recommendations! I was hoping you’d see this and chime in. It was your and Proper Jenny’s advice (and her kind lending of her copy) that got me to start with this one. I really like the idea of a book set at a fantasy convention.


  8. I’ll have to try DWJ, she seems to be popping up all over my Google Reader.

    I’m glad you asked for Tam Lin retelling recommendations because now I can recommend/second the recommendation of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. I read it a few years ago, also not knowing anything about the Tam Lin legend/myth, but it’s very well done. New friends recommended it to me on the basis that every English major loves it, but I think anyone with a bookish bent will love it too.

  9. celawerd says:

    I am always looking for new books to use in the classroom to suggest to kids. Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. litlove says:

    I’m so glad you liked it. I am definitely not a fantasy gal, but this book (probably because it is so grounded in recognisable reality) really worked for me. DWJ’s endings are often very elliptical and take some working out. I’ve read an unusual selection of her novels, because apart from this one, I was reading her out loud to my son. We loved Archer’s Goon and The Ogre Downstairs.

    • Teresa says:

      The fantasy is so subtle for so long that I can see how this would appeal even to someone who isn’t into fantasy.

      And if both you and Jenny suggest Archer’s Goon it’s clearly one I should look for!

  11. justbookreading says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time now. I read Diana Wynne Jones for the first time last year and was so happy and disappointed at the same time — I wished I had discovered her as a child! Now I’m learning to enjoy her books as an adult so still a bonus. :-)

  12. sakura says:

    My childhood reading was like yours, I think I stumbled upon books on my own as both my parents grew up with different literary traditions (i.e. not Englsh). So yes, I missed Diana Wynne Jones too and have only really started wanting to read her books since reading all the wonderful posts about her books on blogs. You’ve made me want to read this right now!

    • Teresa says:

      My parents just weren’t big readers, and the teachers and librarians in my rural school seemed happy enough to see kids choosing to read–they didn’t direct the few bookworms much. It’s great, though, how blogs are helping me see the gaps that need to be filled in!

  13. Bina says:

    I completely missed out on Diana Wynne Jones as a child! I only read Howl’s Moving Castle this year- what a revelation :) I’ll have to find more of her works, they all sound amazing!

  14. Danielle says:

    My childhood reading was spotty, too! I had started this in March! I think I am at the point where Mr. Lynn was telling her a story–or reading a letter to her–or she was reading a letter he wrote–so much time has passed now facts are sketchy. I was enjoying it but I seem to get easily distracted these days. I really should pick it back up and keep going I think–will have to return to your post when I do (as I only skimmed–have heard things about the ending, too!).

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