I was going to write about a new book today, but then I noticed something on the cover of my old copy of King of Shadows, by Susan Cooper, and, well, I wanted to talk about that. See, I love Publishers Weekly as much as any book nerd, but sometimes they’re prone to serious understatement. Like this, on the cover of King of Shadows: “A masterful novel.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review. Oh, phooey, Publishers Weekly! Come on! Would you also say that it’s pretty nice to get a cup of hot chocolate after coming in from the cold, or that it was awfully convenient for someone struggling across a burning desert to find a fountain of cool, fresh water? “Masterful,” indeed. I’ll try to explain why it irks me so much, and why, even though it irks me, I don’t really know if they could do that much better.
(This cover, pulled from Amazon, has a better blurb from Booklist. A bit trite, but much better.)
King of Shadows, for those who don’t know, is the story of a South Carolina boy, Nat Field, who is put into a period-style production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a strange but brilliant director, Arby, who takes his production to London to perform at the Globe Theatre. Nat, Puck in this production, has a fierce need to act. Partly this seems to be from a very real and natural inclination, but he seems to have unlocked this inclination by a need to hide from his personal distress. First his mother died of cancer, and then his father, traumatized by her death, killed himself. Nat found his father’s body and blamed himself for not being enough for his father. He hides his pain in his driven passion for acting.
One night in London, however, Nat falls asleep and wakes up in Shakespeare’s London, a young actor from St. Paul’s School, on loan to the Globe Theatre to play Puck in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The experience takes Nat the full gamut of his emotions: first he feels disorientation and loss. He is the new boy, new and different in more ways than the company can comprehend. He is teased and neglected, but, ultimately, he proves his worth to the company, and, in particular, finds a friend in Will Shakespeare himself, who notices the boy’s distress and gently helps him open up about his parents’ deaths. Just when he is finally happy in Shakespeare’s world, however– well, he wakes up back in his original world, and is thrown right back into his original disorientation. The book concludes tentatively but hopefully: can Nat endure and overcome the loss of yet another father-figure in Shakespeare? Will he bring the relief he got from Shakespeare with him into the twentieth century? We’re left hoping that he will.
Let’s start with my personal note here: this book meant the world to me when I was growing up. I felt awkward and out of place, although, thank God, with nothing close to Nat’s level of personal trauma. Still, I could identify with Nat’s desire to hide in acting; that’s what I did, too, and I particularly had a love for Shakespeare, and for acting Shakespeare. I was, frankly, obsessed. So, finding a book which validated those feelings was nothing short of miraculous for me.
But I think there’s more to it than that, as a brilliantly-constructed book and as a cathartic reading experience for children and young adults. And, let’s face it, for adults, too. I still love rereading this book. Let’s start by talking a bit about that construction, then.
Look, it can’t be easy to write a book where there’s tossing back and forth in time, especially when you have to account for Nat Field’s loss in 20th-century London by, unbeknownst to him, sending another Nat Field forward in time to be cured of the bubonic plague by 20th-century doctors– you see what I mean? There’s a lot to keep straight. And Susan Cooper makes it look so damned easy that I want to go and kneel at her feet: “Teach me thy ways, oh Mistress of Letters, so that I, too, may be called ‘masterful’ by Publishers Weekly.” It’s all smoothly, elegantly done.
But, again, there’s more to this business of construction than that, and that’s where I begin to find PW‘s little blurb, well, insufficient. Where do you end Nat’s distress?, is the question I’d have had, writing this book. Does he stay in Elizabethan England? Not really possible, I guess, he needs to come home where he honestly does belong. But how does he react when he comes home? Is he, well, cured? Did Shakespeare do it? Oh, it would have been so easy to cop out like that. And the book would suck. You could also take it the opposite extreme: leave Nat unhappy forever, and then I would be furious because we have enough “dark and gritty” books out there, don’t we? Now, walking the tightrope in between, representing real grief, real depression, real emotions– and, ultimately, real hope? That’s what Susan Cooper does so beautifully it makes me want to weep.
And– get this, you writer-types out there– she does it successfully in the first person. I am picky about writing in the first person, in case I haven’t shared that particular idiosyncrasy yet: I think it’s really hard to do it properly. Susan Cooper does, and she’s able to use it to convey genuine emotions in a time-travel story which she makes deeply realistic. That’s skill which already goes beyond “masterful” right there.
I also called it cathartic, though. And that takes me back to my personal note up above. Reading this for me, as a child, was an opportunity for me to work through my own loneliness and anxiety. I know I would have been a good deal lonelier without Nat Field beside me, that’s for sure. I think, though, that it goes further. Anyone who suffers grief can relate to Nat. Anyone with loneliness, with burning passion, with a drive to overcome, but with a dragging secret trauma– anyone who’s human, in other words, can relate to Nat, and can, I think, be helped by his story, and be moved by how beautifully it’s told.
And that’s why I think any blurb on the cover would irk me a little. Even my best attempt: “A humane story, beautifully told.” It just won’t do. Instead– read the book, people, just read the book. Once you have, I think you’ll also find blurbing a difficult task.