Peeling Back the Layers
WWhen I first heard about Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl, I almost jumped out of my skin. I’d spent most of the summer getting into de Lint’s mix of folklore and mythic elements and modern life, especially his Newford stories. Newford, for those unfamiliar, is a fictional city in North America (there is some debate as to whether it’s in the United States or de Lint’s native Canada), where many of his stories take place, including the short story collections Dreams Underfoot, The Ivory and the Horn, and Moonlight and Vines, and the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying, and Forests of the Heart. The Newford stories all deal to some degree with finding magic in the modern world, and the characters have to deal with the consequences of finding out that there are more layers to the world than they’d previously known.
While The Onion Girl doesn’t require your having read de Lint’s previous work, he does make references to his previous works. These references add to the feeling, make the reader comfortable with, the self-contained world he describes in The Onion Girl. If you haven’t read his previous volumes, you won’t feel out of step or lacking. In all honesty, these references will make you want to “know” more, perhaps make you “hooked.” The books are loosely connected, though, so if you’re interested in reading the Newford novels in order of publication, start with 1994’s Memory and Dream. For a good introduction to the themes that run throughout de Lint’s work, try picking up Dreams Underfoot, the first of his short story collections. (While the novels are excellent, it’s in the short stories that de Lint really shines.)
At the center of these stories, always, is the artist Jilly Coppercorn, a spritely figure, always with flecks of paint on her nails, her jeans, and in her hair, who seems to believe in everything, no matter how farfetched. While Jilly appears in at least half of the short stories, her part in the novels is usually smaller. However, with The Onion Girl, de Lint sets out to tell Jilly’s story. Sporting more than a slight crush on Jilly, naturally I was excited to see a whole novel devoted to her character, as I can imagine most fans of de Lint’s were.
Fans, get ready to have your hearts broken. It gets worse for Jilly. Much of her dark past was already laid out in the 1993 story “In the house of My Enemy,” which is reprinted as part of The Onion Girl (mostly because, as de Lint says, he didn’t have the heart to revisit the horrific abuse and other misfortunes visited on Jilly as a child and preteen). The novel begins in the aftermath of a car crash that has left her paralyzed; “the Broken Girl,” as she calls herself. Without giving away too much, she is told that the healing powers of her friends who dwell in the spirit-world will be of no avail until she comes to terms with her past and its hurts. This, along with the reappearance of a figure from her past, and her newfound ability to dream herself into the spirit-world, take up most of the plot of the book.
However, despite the somewhat darker themes of The Onion Girl, the appeal of the book is much the same as with de Lint’s previous work: the theme of magic existing side-by-side with the modern world. The theme of a hidden dimension to life, is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the fundamental theme of mythology no wonder, then, that de Lint eschews the label “urban fantasy” for his own description: “mythic fiction.” As Jilly tells a homeless girl she’s taking care of, “‘If there’s no magic, there’s no meaning.’ Without magic or call it wonder, mystery, natural wisdom nothing has any depth. It’s all just surface.” Later, a spirit tells Jilly that “it is so easy for your people to forget that everything has a spirit That magic and mystery are a part of your lives, not something to store away in a child’s bedroom, or to use as an escape from your lives.”
This theme has been visited by de Lint time and time again, but the real treat here is seeing the continued development in the Newford novels of a structure to this other world. The stories lay out the hidden dimension to life. Trader dealt in part with the spirit-world, and used the character of Joseph Crazy Dog (called “Bones”), to a greater degree (Joseph is more of a force in The Onion Girl than ever before). Someplace to be Flying introduced the idea of “The People,” animal-people who have been around since the creation of the world, and perhaps before: Raven, Jack Daw, the Crow Girls, Cody (Coyote), Margaret (Magpie), as well as families of dogs, foxes, and wolves. Last year’s Forests of the Heart established more details about the spirit-world, also called Manido-Aki, and attempts to organize it. The Onion Girl takes place in large parts in the spirit-world (as did Forests of the Heart), and fleshes it out in greater detail.
Together, with all the gradual additions, de Lint is close to laying out what must be called a foundational myth for his world. When I first discovered de Lint’s work, I took to it the way I haven’t done with anything since I first read Neil Gaiman, and I think the comparisons between them aren’t inappropriate. Except where Gaiman works in large-scale myth, creating a framework and then filling it in, de Lint mostly works with folkloristic elements: girls who can change into crows, a tree that is fed with tales, or an artist whose paintings can come to life - leaving a framework that, even with the emergent myth of “the People,” is relatively wide open.
There are weak points, in The Onion Girl as with the original Newford short stories: the theme of child abuse is revisited too often, the plots seem to take a long time to get anywhere, and the characters do seem to fall into the categories of the Skeptic and the Believer. More to the point, the theme of a hidden dimension to the world, and of confronting the existence of magic, may grow tiresome, but that theme is why I read de Lint, (as well as Gaiman). Stone-cold rationalist as I seem to be, I don’t want to live in a world without magic, without wonder. Like Jill Sobule says in a song, “I’d love to see a miracle once before I die.” De Lint’s stories make you believe in miracles, and The Onion Girl is no exception.