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Leonid Gore
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Billingsley, Franny The Folk Keeper. Karl/Atheneum, 1999. [176p]
ISBN 0-689-82876-4   $16.00    Gr. 6-10

Fantasy is a genre that permits a certain indulgence in extremes, easily encompassing life-altering events and monumental emotions. When composed with grace, the language of fantasy makes the abstract concrete; unexplained longings and dark fears, the thirst for freedom and the need for love are captured in words that give them form and substance. With The Folk Keeper, Franny Billingsley has written a novel in which powerful words equal powerful enchantment, and she has done so with some powerful words of her own.

For four years, orphan Corinna Stonewall has been hiding her gender beneath the trousers and dirty face of Corin, a Folk Keeper, one of few individuals gifted with the talent to keep the fierce and ravenous Folk content and confined behind various portals from underground caverns to the upper world. In the cellar of the orphanage, Corin/Corinna "sits with the Folk for hour upon hour in the dark, drawing off their anger as a lightning rod draws off lightning." When the Lady Alicia comes to her with a deathbed request from her elderly husband, Corinna leaves the orphanage behind to become Folk Keeper for the Manor at Marblehaugh Park, on the northernmost island of Cliffsend. She soon discovers that the Manor Folk are stronger than those of the orphanage, and her usual tricks and persuasions will not work with them. At great spiritual and physical cost, Corinna manages to restrain the seething Folk, even as she discovers truths about her origin that exhilarate and endanger her. Her odyssey of personal discovery brings her a dear friend in Lady Alicia's son, Finian (aka Fin), and a dangerous enemy in Fin's wicked uncle, Lord Edward.

Corinna narrates her own story through entries in her Folk Record; those entries provide unintended insights into her own wild psyche and fierce emotions and become the story of both her liberation and her redemption. In the course of this carefully nuanced tale, Corinna grows and changes from an adolescent girl with a single-minded determination to ensure her own survival at any cost to a young woman who, in spite of herself, responds to the only kindness she has ever known. The romantic tension between Corinna and Fin is beautifully understated: Fin honors Corinna's wish to be Corin, even as he falls ever deeper in love with her; Corinna fights her attraction to Fin, determined not to surrender herself. Their union is far from a foregone conclusion, and that suspense adds an exquisite, subtle energy that is maintained until the final pages.

The remote island of Cliffsend is peopled with intensely rendered individuals that make an indelible mark on Corinna, and the reader. Key characters-the gracious Lady Alicia, struggling to manage the Manor and its lands; the sinister Sir Edward, scheming to have the Manor for himself; the tender Fin, undeceived by Corinna's disguise-are archetypal yet original, distinctively fulfilling their function in the plot. Corinna, herself an archetypal (and therefore potentially flat) character, is given dimension and motivation, her willful words and innate wit marking her as a force to be reckoned with.

As she did in Well Wished (BCCB 4/97), Billingsley creates a consistently complex fantasy world that steps just beyond the familiar into wonder. The natural landscape and seascape are permeated with a tempestuous magic that is barely contained. The sea is a constant, brooding, nearly sentient presence: "The sea up close is enormous. I squeezed my eyes against it for a moment, which is ridiculous, like fighting a giant with a pin. It comes to you anyway, through your ears and nose and skin and tongue. It is a savage, muscular thing, a vast dim wetness battering at the land and the air and all your senses." The supernatural beings of this untamed terrain-selkies, hell hounds-emerge from the darker pages of faery lore, and the Folk themselves are a revelation. There are no Tinkerbells or gauzy godmothers in this fantasy world; the Folk are the dark ones, the spawn of an Unseely court, voracious ("They are mostly mouth. Wet mouth and teeth") and implacable.

In imagistic language, Billingsley masterfully combines elements from traditional folklore with more mundane things like greed, murder, and betrayal. The trajectory of the plot creeps slowly from the darkness of a Folk Keeper's cellar, gathers momentum during a Midsummer Eve masquerade, roars to a revelatory crescendo in an underground cavern, and resolves itself in a sea change and a choice. Breathtakingly imaginative, with an earthy magic that grounds it in passion, this is sophisticated fantasy from a powerful pen.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
October's Bulletin cover illustration
by Leonid Gore from
The Folk Keeper,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers



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