(sorry about this – this post was too long for just one session!)
Though these books were compelling reads, Maguire’s skill in narrative really shines in his YA novels. Missing Sisters, is the story of two girls in 1968 and the strange parallels of their lives. In one short year, 12-year-old Alice, partially deaf, and with a speech impediment, raised in a Catholic group home, loses her beloved Sister Vincent De Paul in a fire, and turns down a chance to be adopted. Not knowing if the Sister is dead or alive, and being protected from the truth by well-meaning but confused nuns, Alice finds it difficult to move forward. She refuses to practice working through her speech impediment, until a chance to play Eliza Dolittle in a school play of My Fair Lady and a chance meeting with a girl named Miami gives her a bit more courage to move out of herself. She’s confused and worried, trying to figure out how to keep promises to all she knows of her family. In the end, Alice finds that family ties what you make of them, and are less fragile than we think. This is a surprisingly touching book, not because of the inclusion of motherless children and nuns, but because Maguire infuses Alice with a fierce spirit that allows her to carry on through hurdles with surprising grace.
Oasis continues this compassionate treatment of confused and thought-provoking characters, and allows Maguire to utilize a radically different voice. Hand Gunther(short for Mohandas Gandhi Gunther, to be precise) comes home from track and finds his activist father dead of a heart attack. His mother, who left he and his father and older sister Vida three years before, is suddenly back and on scene, bossy, acerbic and in charge. Hand is both enraged and anguished, wondering if it is somehow his fault – that his mother went away, that he didn’t call and say he’d be late, that his father died alone. Grimly quit, Hand bucks all of the changes going on in his life, and resists overtures from his mother, and his ambivalent-but-trying-to-connect Uncle Wolfgang, his college-girl sister, and an overly helpful teacher, Ms. Fernald. Arriving late to accept his father’s hospitality, a father and son fleeing Iran become a part of the extended family in the run-down motel Hand and his father managed. Though he’s going along and trying to live life like before, Hand is stuck trying to find someone to blame for everything that’s going on. Maybe his mother. Maybe his Uncle Wolfgang. Maybe it’s even him. Somebody has to pay.
Each chapter begins with a Dickinson poem, brief and ephemeral, an observation on the sweetness and the brevity of life, or the busywork of death. This novel deals gently with the discovery that life sometimes is just stuff that happens, the best we can do is hang on to the hands around us, and keep on going with it.
Gregory Maguire is a very agile writer, twisting between a seamlessly refined voice that details scenery and atmosphere with a camera’s dispassionate eye to a more intimate and personal narrative, closely twined with the emotional errata sheathing the hearts of his characters. None of the stories are action packed, but they scrutinize a progression of soul in each character that makes for a satisfying read.