Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)
It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:
We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…
Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.
New York’s Manhattan seems to be an ideal place to set a story based on a fairytale collection: it has a multi-ethnic mix with varied cultural traditions; it boasts a legacy of Victorian-period brownstone buildings which, in a city seemingly the epitome of modernity, are still prized; and as with every great metropolis even everyday things can seem extraordinary. Friendless Elizabeth, the drudge in a family with an offstage stepmother and stepsisters, fulfils the classic dogsbody role taken by the fairytale protagonist; she even plays the Good Samaritan as such plucky heroines should. Luckily a sympathetic teacher is able to recommend her for after-school employment in the repository; here she soon finds other like-minded pages such as Marc, Anjali and Aaron. Pretty soon she hears whispers about the Grimm Collection which houses objects as diverse as worn-out dancing shoes, seven-league boots, talking mirrors and mermaids’ combs; and, wonder of wonders, she is even allowed to borrow items…
But the existence of magic in a world generally ignorant of it has the potential to cause problems through unwitting use, deliberate misuse and the abuse of trust. Elizabeth, her new friends and librarians alike must discover the source of thefts from the Grimm Collection, and the investigations lead inevitably to unforeseen dangers.
Polly Shulman has written a worthy update to those fairytales that seemed forever set in a vaguely medieval Teutonic countryside. An opening realistic setting in a New York winter, on city streets, in school corridors and gymnasiums, settles to the ordered life of the repository before gradually sliding into nightmare. There are echoes of E Nesbit when we come to the intrusion of magic and even nods perhaps to Diana Wynne Jones in the concepts of Nowhere and the Garden of Seasons inspired by the repository’s (fictional) Tiffany windows.
While sometimes the plotting seems to me to be a little clunky and episodic, overall I thought this was an enchanting novel, and I found the last third of the novel impossible to put down, sleep notwithstanding. The whole is embellished by descriptive chapter headings with illustrations by Kristjana S Williams. Thinking back, my memory is of a kaleidoscope of images and concepts: the inner workings of the repository with its ‘pneums’ and adapted Dewey system; the various figurines, dolls and puppets that form a key part of the plot; the sheer villainy of the novel’s bad guys; the improvised rhymes and raps that form the spells that work the magic; and, last but not least, the magical objects of the collection. Shulman even manages to include sub-plots on the theme of love’s course rarely running smooth, a dilemma which young adults sadly too often find themselves subject to.
Elizabeth herself is an engaging first-person narrator, with a witty line in dialogue, put-downs and self-deprecation; I wonder if Tiffany’s ‘Girl with Cherry Blossom’ inspired Shulman’s depiction of her, both visually and in terms of the final denouement.