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This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Foxspell Gillian Rubenstein

I have wanted it read this for a long time - ever since it was mentioned in a review of my own 'Hunted'. I had never heard of it at the time but the sections when the boy 'Tod' becomes a fox are indeed similar to those of my protagonist Karen in so far as they focus on the sensory world and contrast the complexity of the human world with that of the animal world. Here as in my book it is the protagonist's problems with the human world which facilitate the animal transformation but in Rubinstein's story the ability to become a fox is a gift of the fox's guardian spirit, Dan Russell who rewards Tod with this gift because he buried the corpse of  a young fox shot by humans.  This is in many ways a more grounded story than mine with the bulk of it set in a suburb of Adelaide. Tod, his two sisters: the conscientious, hard working,' Dallas' and the wild and beautiful 'Charm' , and his mother Leonie have moved from Sydney to live with his grandmother following his father's return to London. Tod is in his last year at primary school and struggles with school work though he is a gifted painter. He makes two friends the bright and over protected Martin and Adrian whose elder brother Shaun, a graffiti artist who leads the gang 'the Breakers.' Tod is warned off exploring the landscape around his grandmother's house, a landscape of disused quarries, the railway and the depot. 
 There are several intertwined threads in this novel, so that it has the kind of sprawling shape that has fallen out of favour in the current publishing environment. There is the domestic story of his Tod's sisters, their mother who is trying to be a stand up comedian, using their lives as material and the acerbic tough grandmother, who keeps hens, has a much loved cat, Inkspot and defends her land against all threats. The absence of Tod's father is also significant, so that Dan Russell acts as spirit father to Tod as fox, giving him instructions that he simply obeys.pg140 '...when he had been a fox everything Dan Russell had communicated had been true, and he'd obeyed him immediately. It was only being human again that made him doubtful and scared.His fox mind had been clear and straightforward, and linked directly to his body.' Dan Russell cares for his children and would like Tod to become one of them, but his interests are not wholly human.
 The second thread concerns Tod and his friendships and life out of the home. Everyone is too distracted by their own concerns to make sure he attends school.Shaun first threatens him, then invites him to join the gang and then when he rejects him pursues him 'as a fox' through the quarries. When he strikes up a relationship with Charm and produces a monumental piece of graffiti by the railway line Tod is finally persuaded to join him in order to produce some art work of his own.
The supernatural thread, which concerns Tod's affinity with the natural world  underpins the whole book. Tod is literally running wild, exploring the territory and following the large fox that he has seen around the place. By following the fox he is able to evade the Breakers. The spirit fox leads him to a hidden place, reveals his strange nature and turns him into a foxboy, teaching him to hunt and teaching him about the underlying world of spirits. It is only when Dan Russell as a  fox kills the cat  and both of them kill his grandmother's chickens that this dream of being an animal spirit sours. 
The story looks as if it might twist toward a conventional ending. It seems that Tod's father wants to come back, Dallas is going to marry the local policeman and Charm is with Shaun. Then everything changes and the plot takes an unexpected turn. The Breaker gang want to do something big and set fire to the depot and while Charm and Adrian keep watc,h Tod paints his big fox painting by the railway line. Shaun tells them about the fire then jumps on a train to escape as he knows he will be in serious trouble. Adrian tries to follow him and is killed on the tracks. 
The story ends with Dan Russell answering Tod's anguished cry: ' His human was making strange sounds, no longer screaming but panting in a heavy anguished way that made Dan Russell want to snarl and run. He wanted to save his cub. He wanted to take him away from whatever made him pant like that. He barked sharply. Then he waited for his cub to look up and meet his gaze.'
 The reader does not know if Tod does choose to leave the difficult human world for the simpler one of the spirits. It is exactly the kind of ending I love to write and hate to read.

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