“I am a changeling–a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do. We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own. . . .”The double story of Henry Day begins in 1949, when he is kidnapped at age seven by a band of wild childlike beings who live in an ancient, secret community in the forest. The changelings rename their captive Aniday and he becomes, like them, unaging and stuck in time. They leave one of their own to take his place, an imposter who must try–with varying success–to hide his true identity from the Day family. As the changeling Henry grows up, he is haunted by glimpses of his lost double and by vague memories of his own childhood a century earlier. Narrated in turns by Henry and Aniday, The Stolen Child follows them as their lives converge, driven by their obsessive search for who they were before they changed places in the world. Moving from a realistic setting in small-town America deep into the forest of humankind’s most basic desires and fears, this remarkable novel is a haunting fable about identity and the illusory innocence of childhood.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
* CHAPTER 1 *
Don't call me a fairy. We don't like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time, fairy
was a perfectly acceptable catchall for a variety of creatures, but now it has taken on too many associations. Etymologically speaking, a fairy is something quite particular, related in kind to the naiads, or water nymphs, and while of the genus, we are sui generis. The word fairy
is drawn from fay
(Old French fee
), which itself comes from the Latin Fata
, the goddess of fate. The fay lived in groups called the faerie, between the heavenly and earthly realms.
There exist in this world a range of sublunary spirits that carminibus coelo possunt deducere lunam
, and they have been divided since ancient times into six kinds: fiery, aerial, terrestrial, watery, subterranean, and the whole class of fairies and nymphs. Of the sprites of fire, water, and air, I know next to nothing. But the terrestrial and underground devils I know all too well, and of these, there is infinite variety and attendant myth about their behavior, custom, and culture. Known around the world by many different names--Lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, foliots, Robin Goodfellows, pucks, leprechauns, pukas, sídhe
, trolls--the few that remain live hidden in the woods and are rarely seen or encountered by human beings. If you must give me a name, call me hobgoblin.
Or better yet, I am a changeling--a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do. We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own. The hobgoblin becomes the child, and the child becomes a hobgoblin. Not any boy or girl will do, but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world. The changelings select carefully, for such opportunities might come along only once a decade or so. A child who becomes part of our society might have to wait a century before his turn in the cycle arrives, when he can become a changeling and reenter the human world.
Preparation is tedious, involving close surveillance of the child, and of his friends and family. This must be done unobserved, of course, and it's best to select the child before he begins school, because it becomes more complicated by then, having to memorize and process a great deal of information beyond the intimate family, and being able to mimic his personality and history as clearly as mirroring his physique and features. Infants are the easiest, but caring for them is a problem for the changelings. Age six or seven is best. Anyone much older is bound to have a more highly developed sense of self. No matter how old or young, the object is to deceive the parents into thinking that this changeling is actually their child. More easily done than most people imagine.
No, the difficulty lies not in assuming a child's history but in the painful physical act of the change itself. First, start with the bones and skin, stretching until one shudders and nearly snaps into the right size and body shape. Then the others begin work on one's new head and face, which require the skills of a sculptor. There's considerable pushing and pulling at the cartilage, as if the skull were a soft wad of clay or taffy, and then the malicious business with the teeth, the removal of the hair, and the tedious -re--weaving. The entire process occurs without a gram of painkiller, although a few imbibe a noxious alcohol made from the fermented mash of acorns. A nasty undertaking, but well worth it, although I could do without the rather complicated rearrangement of the genitals. In the end, one is an exact copy of a child. Thirty years ago, in 1949, I was a changeling who became a human again.
I changed lives with Henry Day, a boy born on a farm outside of town. On a late summer's afternoon, when he was seven, Henry ran away from home and hid in a hollow chestnut tree. Our changeling spies followed him and raised the alarm, and I transformed myself into his perfect facsimile. We grabbed him, and I slipped into the hollowed space to switch my life for his. When the search party found me that night, they were happy, relieved, and proud-not angry, as I had expected. "Henry," a -red--haired man in a fireman's suit said to me as I pretended to sleep in the hiding place. I opened my eyes and gave him a bright smile. The man wrapped me in a thin blanket and carried me out of the woods to a paved road, where a fire truck stood waiting, its red light pulsing like a heartbeat. The firemen took me home to Henry's parents, to my new father and mother. As we drove along the road that night, I kept thinking that if that first test could be passed, the world would once again be mine.
It is a commonly held myth that, among the birds and the beasts, the mother recognizes her young as her own and will refuse a stranger thrust into the den or the nest. This is not so. In fact, the cuckoo commonly lays its eggs in other birds' nests, and despite its extraordinary size and voracious appetite, the cuckoo chick receives as much, indeed more, maternal care, often to the point of driving the other chicks from their lofty home. Sometimes the mother bird starves her own offspring because of the cuckoo's incessant demands. My first task was to create the fiction that I was the real Henry Day. Unfortunately, humans are more suspicious and less tolerant of intruders in the nest.
The rescuers knew only that they were looking for a young boy lost in the woods, and I could remain mute. After all, they had found someone
and were therefore content. As the fire truck lurched up the driveway to the Days' home, I vomited against the bright red door, a vivid mess of acorn mash, watercress, and the exoskeletons of a number of small insects. The fireman patted me on the head and scooped me up, blanket and all, as if I were of no more consequence than a rescued kitten or an abandoned baby. Henry's father leapt from the porch to gather me in his arms, and with a strong embrace and warm kisses reeking of smoke and alcohol, he welcomed me home as his only son. The mother would be much harder to fool.
Her face betrayed her every emotion: blotchy skin, chapped with salty tears, her pale blue eyes rimmed in red, her hair matted and disheveled. She reached out for me with trembling hands and emitted a small sharp cry, the kind a rabbit makes when in the distress of the snare. She wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve and wrapped me in the wracking shudder of a woman in love. Then she began laughing in that deep coloratura.
"Henry? Henry?" She pushed me away and held on to my shoulders at arm's length. "Let me look at you. Is it really you?"
"I'm sorry, Mom."
She brushed away the bangs hiding my eyes and then pulled me against her breast. Her heart beat against the side of my face, and I felt hot and uncomfortable.
"You needn't worry, my little treasure. You're home and safe and sound, and that's all that matters. You've come back to me."
Dad cupped the back of my head with his large hand, and I thought this homecoming tableau might go on forever. I squirmed free and dug out the handkerchief from Henry's pocket, crumbs spilling to the floor.
"I'm sorry I stole the biscuit, Mom."
She laughed, and a shadow passed behind her eyes. Maybe she had been wondering up to that point if I was indeed her flesh and blood, but mentioning the biscuit did the trick. Henry had stolen one from the table when he ran away from home, and while the others took him to the river, I stole and pocketed it. The crumbs proved that I was hers.
Well after midnight, they put me to bed, and such a comfort may be the greatest invention of mankind. In any case, it tops sleeping in a hole in the cold ground, a moldy rabbit skin for your pillow, and the grunts and sighs of a dozen changelings anxious in their dreams. I stretched out like a stick between the crisp sheets and pondered my good fortune. Many tales exist of failed changelings who are uncovered by their presumptive families. One child who showed up in a Nova Scotia fishing village so frightened his poor parents that they fled their own home in the middle of a snowstorm and were later found frozen and bobbing in the frigid harbor. A changeling girl, age six, so shocked her new parents when she opened her mouth to speak that, thus frightened, they poured hot wax into each other's ears and never heard another sound. Other parents, upon learning that their child had been replaced by changelings, had their hair turn white overnight, were stunned into catatonia, heart attacks, or sudden death. Worse yet, though rare, other families drive out the creature through exorcism, banishment, abandonment, murder. Seventy years ago, I lost a good friend after he forgot to make himself look older as he aged. Convinced he was a devil, his parents tied him up like an unwanted kitten in a gunnysack and threw him down a well. Most of the time, though, the parents are confounded by the sudden change of their son or daughter, or one spouse blames the other for their queer fortune. It is a risky endeavor and not for the fainthearted.
That I had come this far undetected caused me no small satisfaction, but I was not completely at ease. A half hour after I had gone to bed, the door to my room swung open slowly. Framed against the hallway light, Mr. and Mrs. Day stuck their heads through the opening. I shut my eyes to mere slits and pretended to be sleeping. Softly, but persistently, she was sobbing. None could cry with such dexterity as Ruth Day. "We have to mend our ways, Billy. You have to make sure this never happens again."
"I know, I promise," he whispered. "Look at him sleeping, though. 'The innocent sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care.'"
He pulled shut the door and left me in the darkness. My fellow changelings and I had been spying on the boy for months, so I knew the contours of my new home at the edge of the forest. Henry's view of their few acres and the world beyond was magical. Outside, the stars shone through the window above a jagged row of firs. Through the open windows, a breeze blew across the top of the sheets, and moths beat their wings in retreat from their perches on the window screen. The nearly full moon reflected enough light into the space to reveal the dim pattern on the wallpaper, the crucifix above my head, pages torn from magazines and newspapers tacked along the wall. A baseball mitt and ball rested on top of the bureau, and on the washstand a pitcher and bowl glowed as white as phosphorous. A short stack of books lay propped against the bowl, and I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of reading come morning.
The twins began bawling at the break of day. I padded down the hallway, past my new parents' room, following the sound. The babies hushed the moment they saw me, and I am sure that had they the gifts of reason and speech, Mary and Elizabeth would have said "You're not Henry" the moment I walked into the room. But they were mere tots, with more teeth than sentences, and could not articulate the mysteries of their young minds. With their clear wide eyes, they regarded my every move with quiet attentiveness. I tried smiling, but no smiles were returned. I tried making funny faces, tickling them under their fat chins, dancing like a puppet, and whistling like a mockingbird, but they simply watched, passive and inert as two dumb toads. Racking my brain to find a way to get through to them, I recalled other occasions when I had encountered something in the forest as helpless and dangerous as these two human children. Walking along in a lonesome glen, I had come across a bear cub separated from its mother. The frightened animal let out such a godforsaken scream that I half expected to be surrounded by every bear in the mountains. Despite my powers with animals, there was nothing to be done with a monster that could have ripped me open with a single swat. By crooning to the beast, I soothed it, and remembering this, I did so with my newfound sisters. They were enchanted by the sound of my voice and began at once to coo and clap their chubby hands while long strings of drool ran down their chins. "Twinkle, Twinkle" and "Bye, Baby Bunting" reassured or convinced them that I was close enough to be their brother, or preferable to their brother, but who knows for certain what thoughts flitted through their simple minds. They gurgled, and they gooed. In between songs, for counterpoint, I would talk to them in Henry's voice, and gradually they came to believe-or abandon their sense of disbelief.
Mrs. Day bustled into the babies' room, humming and tra--la--la--ing. Her general girth and amplitude amazed me; I had seen her many times before, but not quite at such close quarters. From the safety of the woods, she had seemed more or less the same as all adult humans, but in person, she assumed a singular tenderness, though she smelled faintly sour, a perfume of milk and yeast. She danced across the floor, throwing open curtains, dazzling the room with golden morning, and the girls, brightened by her presence, pulled themselves up by the slats of their cribs. I smiled at her, too. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into joyous laughter. She smiled back at me as if I were her only son.
"Help me with your sisters, would you, Henry?"
I picked up the nearest girl and announced very pointedly to my new mother, "I'll take Elizabeth." She was as heavy as a badger. It is a curious feeling to hold an infant one is not planning to steal; the very young convey a pleasant softness.
The girls' mother stopped and stared at me, and for a beat, she looked puzzled and uncertain. "How did you know that was Elizabeth? You've never been able to tell them apart."
"That's easy, Mom. Elizabeth has two dimples when she smiles and her name's longer, and Mary has just one."
"Aren't you the clever one?" She picked up Mary and headed off downstairs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. Copyright © 2006 by Keith Donohue. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Keith Donohue
Keith Donohue is the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives in Washington, DC. Until 1998 he worked at the National Endowment for the Arts and wrote hundreds of speeches for chairmen John Frohnmayer and Jane Alexander. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other newspapers. Donohue holds a Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on Irish writer Flann O'Brien was published as The Irish Anatomist: A Study of Flann O'Brien (Maunsel Press, 2003).
Interview with Keith Donohue
Q: You seem to know a lot about changelings. How much of The Stolen Child is autobiographical?
To the best of my knowledge, I am not a changeling. Nor am I a composer or a musician. Not an anthropologist, not a folklorist, and I have never eaten a bug or played the pipe organ in Bohemia. Any resemblance to persons or mythical creatures, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Of course, the style and subject betray deeper truths about growing up, heartbreak, creativity, and yearning–and by necessity, any work of art springs from its creator’s inner life.
Q: I understand that the novel was initially inspired by William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Stolen Child.” Tell us about that connection and Irish folklore.
Well, I wasn’t even aware of my Irish roots until going off to college. Irishness, at the time, was all about stereotypes — leprechauns and St. Paddy’s Day and all that. I think my father had one Irish record, but he was just as likely to be listening to Mahalia Jackson or Herb Albert, and I was even more likely to be listening to “American Pie” or reading American books or watching American television and movies. It was a surprise to me to encounter someone like Yeats and react so viscerally to the rhythm and the ambience of his poems, particularly “The Stolen Child.” It’s really not so much about the faeries, but more about the images of the natural world — the heron, the lake, the rushes — in contrast to the domestic life of the kettle on the hob and the mouse bobbing around the oatmeal chest.
So, I knew the poem ages ago, and one day wandered into a used book store and picked up Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which brushes the dust off the fairy story and brings it to life. A swath of that book revolves around a dialogue between a Pooka (a sort of third-class devil) and a Good Fairy, who being formless, spends a lot of time in his pocket. All very funny, contemporary, and subversive, which is how I decided to approach the changeling legend.
Q: What are the roots of the changeling legend, and how much of it in The Stolen Child is pure invention?
Before I forget, there are another few threads to the weft. The Waterboys, a Celtic rock-folk band, recorded a version of “The Stolen Child” which helped make the poem stick in my mind, and they did a great job of capturing its sensibility. Another influence was Sarah Hrdy’s book Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, which deals with the changeling legend from a social-anthropological standpoint. She writes about the practice in medieval times of parents simply abandoning babies with obvious birth defect — “failure to thrive” is the phrase — and how they justified their infanticide by conjuring up this elaborate theological explanation that their “normal” child had somehow been replaced by this devilish creature in the cradle. And out of that story sprang the folktales and legends that were prevalent in Western Europe. Like most of these stories, there are an awful lot of variations, some contradictory, so I decided to move the story to America and make up the rules for their society — most importantly, how they become changelings and how they can change back into humans. For the purposes of the book, I needed a way to create a character who would be in a child’s body forever, and a character who was a child for too long and who has now reentered human life.
Q: The novel brings up some interesting questions about leaving childhood and the nature of the search for identity, for both Henry Day and Aniday are struggling to find their place in their respective worlds. As you were writing, were you primarily concerned with the development of such large themes?
Prior to writing it, yes, more than anything else I was thinking about early childhood development and the general period of time when a child begins to realize he is mortal like everyone else, when self-consciousness takes a turn toward the accommodation of other wills. In addition to not being a changeling, I’m no expert in early childhood psychology, but I was concerned with how one takes another giant step toward identity and belonging around the time school begins — at six or seven, like Henry Day.
While writing, however, I found that the themes mutated according to the vagaries of the creative process. The book revealed itself in the writing. For example, I had no idea until the end of Chapter One that Henry was originally a little German boy. It came to me suddenly during the scene where his mother reads from the Brothers Grimm. I thought that if Henry remembered the fairy tales from his childhood, he would begin that reentering process, and it seemed to make sense that he would remember it aslant — that he would remember the fairy tales in the original German. And off I went….
Q: That’s interesting that you had no idea that Henry would be a German-American boy going in. Did you discover any other ideas about his character through the writing process? For example, was he predestined to be a musician?
In the process of writing and revision, all kinds of discoveries were made about Henry and Aniday and all of the other characters. I started with the most general notion of two characters responding to the world in different, though not mutually exclusive, perspectives. One of the seminal books in art history is Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy, which looks at early Modernist painting and tries to explain this sudden shift toward abstract art. Worringer traces the human impulse to deal with the natural world through either abstraction or empathy. As Aniday became a faery and empathetic with nature, I realized that the other protagonist would have to think and view nature more abstractly. I knew I wanted Henry to be an artist of some sort, and of all the forms, music rewards the abstract thinker. So he’s a musician who becomes a composer. And he gives us the music he hears in his mind. He tells his story. Of course, Aniday does just the same, although he uses poetry and stories to give us his creation.
Q: Tell us about the decision to tell the story through alternating narrators. Any particular challenges with the process?
I had a devil of a time keeping them straight in my head. I’ve read books with more than one narrator, and the technique seemed right for this novel about the divided self. After the first two chapters, the stories begin to diverge in time, occasionally crossing over into the same incident from different perspectives, before finally coming together in time at the end of the story. Plotting became a complex process.
The other difficulty was trying to write in two different first person voices that are essentially the same person — the original Henry Day and the person trying to become Henry Day — but with enough of a difference to be discrete. Since both narrators are looking back on events, they have the capability of writing as mature beings; but, of course, sustaining the feeling that Aniday is trapped as a seven-year-old led me to many small decisions about his voice. He is both seven and not-seven. Aniday still sees the world as if for the first time, but by the end of the book, he is relying on memory just as much as Henry.
Q: Of the many subtexts in the book, one of the more intriguing is the disappearance of the woodlands and the disappearance of myth. Are these two linked?
To me, one of the great things about being alone in the woods is being swallowed up by wonder. Wallace Stevens has a poem called “The Snow Man” in which a person with “a mind of winter” stands and listens in the snow, “And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Opportunities for that simple existential transcendence with the natural world have been diminished, not simply because we have put up more houses where trees used to stand, but because of the increased mediation of our lives. We’re bombarded with thousands of messages each day on TV, the Internet, advertising, and so on, and it’s easy to forget the magical world that exists in silence, in attention to the splendor going on all around us. It’s not so much the disappearance of myth, or religion, or art, but our diminished sensibility to want or need those stories and images to create meaning in our lives. Our lack of enchantment. That’s why I wrote it as a fairy tale for adults, for the subversive uses of enchantment. After you read the book, go take a walk in the woods and remember whence you came.
Q: Do you consider The Stolen Child to be part of the fantasy genre?
There seems to be an awful lot of art being created these days that disregards the old distinctions of genre. Very realistic treatments of the impossible — muggles and wizards, time travelers, vampire-chasing historians, people aging backwards, and so on — and I’d put myself in the middle of all that delight rather than, strictly speaking, as a fantasy writer. And it’s not an invention of the late-20th or early 21st century at all. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has a changeling prince and fairies and says a lot about love and enchantment. From the Brothers Grimm to Bulgakov, from Garcia Marquez to Murakami, writers have always taken fantastical or fabulous elements to write realistically about the human condition. What drew me to Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” is not what it says about the fairies, but about the human child.
Q: Is this book representative of the kind you’d like to write in the future?
Another tale about changelings? I doubt it, but I’ll always endeavor to remain enchanted and enchanting. As Luchóg says, “A mind often makes its own world to help pass the time.” I’m already at work on the next little world.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background as a writer.
I was one of those kid novelists, always telling stories and writing them down. In college, I was a writing fiend — poetry, plays, stories — and had put myself through school with creative writing scholarships, and in the years afterward, I wrote sporadically, published a few short stories in some small journals, but found little time as my own familial responsibilities grew. Since 1984 I’ve been writing professionally — first, at the National Endowment for the Arts, where I was hired as a correspondence clerk, a slight step above Bartleby the Scrivener. When the speechwriter left in 1989, they gave me the opportunity, and for the next eight years I wrote hundreds of speeches and articles for the chairmen of the agency. But the real dream was deferred, despite the encouragement of my wife and family.
So I decided to go back to school, get my Ph.D., teach college, and have all this free time to write. Going part-time, it took a mere 10 years, but by the time I finished, I couldn’t find a teaching job. I went on to work on federal child care policy, and then left the government for the Center for Arts and Culture.
Q: So how did you come to write this novel? Did you have a difficult time getting it published?
All these different notions were bubbling around in the black cauldron of my imagination–thoughts about art, the divided self, cultural anthropology, mythology, and that early scene in the book where Henry Day has run away from home and is hiding in the hollow tree. I could see him there, feel the bark against his face, and remember the glory of being successfully hidden. Being around artists again inspired me to give the dream of writing one last chance—to take Charlie Parker’s advice and “just play the music, baby.” The novel took me eight months to write, but it went around from agent to agent. Keeping the faith in the book was a challenge, for during the process, my mother passed away after a long bout with cancer and I was sacked from my job at the Center. Nearly two years after I had first sent it out, the call came, and it took another year to revise with the help of agents and editors.
Dreaming, any fool will tell you, is the easy part. The real work involved decades of reading, writing, and building up the perseverance to sit down and work day after day on the novel for its own sake–without fear or hope, but simply to tell the story as best as I could. Publication is surreal. Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you….
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Book
“Utterly absorbing. . . . A luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity.”
—The Washington Post
“I am a changeling—a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do. We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own” [p. 3].
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Keith Donohue’s imaginative and unique tale, The Stolen Child.
About the Guide
The double story of Henry Day begins in 1949, when he is kidnapped at age seven by a band of wild childlike beings who live in an ancient, secret community in the forest. The changelings rename their captive Aniday and he becomes, like them, unaging and stuck in time. They leave one of their own to take his place, an imposter who tries—with varying success—to hide his true identity from the Day family. As the changeling Henry grows up, he is haunted by glimpses of his lost double and by vague memories of his own childhood a century earlier. Narrated in turns by Henry and Aniday, The Stolen Child follows them as their lives converge, driven by their obsessive search for who they were before they changed places in the world.
Moving from a realistic setting in small-town America to the deep forest of humankind’s most basic desires and fears, this remarkable novel is a haunting fable about identity and the illusory innocence of childhood.
About the Author
Keith Donohue is the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Until 1998 he worked at the National Endowment for the Arts and wrote hundreds of speeches for chairmen John Frohnmayer and Jane Alexander. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other newspapers. Donohue holds a Ph.D. in English from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation on Irish writer Flann O’Brien was published as The Irish Anatomist: A Study of Flann O’Brien (Academia Press, 2002).
1. Henry Day begins his narration with “Don’t call me a fairy” and then he takes the reader on a quasi-scientific account of the differences between fairies, hobgoblins, and other “sublunary spirits” [pp. 3–4]. Yet Aniday and the rest of the changelings refer to themselves as “faeries” throughout the book. Why does Henry insist on not being called a fairy? In what other ways does Henry attempt to distance himself from his prior existence?
2. Twins and other twosomes figure predominantly in the book: Henry and Aniday, Tess and Speck, Big Oscar and Little Oscar, Edward and Gustav, Mary and Elizabeth. Other characters form pairs: Luchóg and Smaolach, Kivi and Blomma, Onions and Béka, George Knoll and Jimmy Cummings. What is the significance of the doubles? In what ways can Henry and Aniday be read as two halves of one being? How does the author, beyond using two alternating narrators, play with the theme of doubles?
3. Rather than each chapter echoing its counterpart, the two stories run at different speeds until the end of the book. How does the author manage time in the novel? Where in the narrative does he relate the same incident from different perspectives and in different sequences?
4. When Henry and his friends attempt to synchronize their watches before looking for little Oscar Love, not one of them has the same time as the others. At other points in the story, Henry or Aniday forget the time of day or, in some cases, what year it is. What does that say about their place in time?
5. In chapter 35, Ruth Day says “I’ve known all along, Henry” [p. 301]. Similarly, Henry dreams of Tess changing her form and saying that she, too, knows the truth. What does Henry think they know about him?
6. A critical event in the novel is Bill Day’s suicide and Henry’s muted reaction. What did Bill come to understand about his son? Why do you think Henry’s mother, Ruth Day, didn’t react in a similar manner?
7. In the poem “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats, the faeries attempt to entice the child away “for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” In what ways could the fairyland in Donohue’s novel be considered better than the real world? In what ways could it be considered worse?
8. The changeling legends were cautionary tales meant to illustrate the dangers of creatures that many people once believed in. As McInnes points out in the novel, they were also horrifying explanations for “failure to thrive,” physical deformities, or mental illness in children. Are Henry and Aniday’s stories cautionary tales? What do you make of the changeling who took the place of young Gustav Ungerland and never said another word?
9. What is the significance of music in Henry Day’s transformation? Does the final concert offer Henry a chance at redemption?
10. What role do books play in Aniday’s transformation? As Speck teaches Aniday to read and write, does his understanding of the world change? Is his memoir a chance at redemption?
11. Aniday’s predecessor is referred to as Chopin, but we never really know much about Gustav Ungerland as a changeling. Similarly, once Igel and the others depart the world, they are rarely discussed. Why do the faeries avoid mentioning those who have departed?
12. Why does Speck leave? What is the significance of her map on the ceiling? Do you think Aniday finds Speck?
13. The epigraph from “Nostos” by Louise Gluck states: “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” Why do you think the author chose it? How does it relate to the novel?
14. Is this book a fairy tale for adults? If so, what is the moral of the story? Who, in the end, is the stolen child?
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife; Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli; Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead; Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita; Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds; Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
The Stolen Child tells the tale of a boy who is taken from his family by a group of changelings, wild children who never grow up and who live in the depths of the woods. He loses his identity and eventually becomes a part of this wild tribe. In turn, one of these magical children takes his place and assumes his human life. Both the human child and the changeling struggle with their new lives and desperately try to remember the ones they left behind. The novel is a story of childhood, of growing up, and of determining an identity.
About This Book
The Stolen Child is structured like a fairy tale about two boys, Henry Day and Aniday, one a child growing up, the other trapped as a child eternally. Each boy must try to figure out his place in the world by examining his past, navigating his present, and determining a direction for his future.
One night, seven-year-old Henry Day runs away from home and is stolen by a tribe of changelings, “boys and girls stuck in time, ageless, feral as a pack of wild dogs” (p. 15). He is given a new name, Aniday. After his initial horror fades, he learns to live among them in the woods and eventually becomes a member of this strange and magical community of “ancients in wild children’s bodies.” Like those who stole him, Aniday’s body will never age. As the years pass and he grows increasingly distant from his former life, Aniday desperately tries to hold on to whatever he can remember about who he once was so that he can determine who he will become.
His life among the fairies takes a different turn after he receives a gift of paper and pencil from another changeling. With these writing tools, Aniday begins to record his memories, his thoughts, and what he learns from the other fairies. As he explains, without this gift, he “would have been lost forever.”
The changeling who takes his place assumes the name of the stolen child, Henry Day. The changelings choose a child who is withdrawn and disillusioned, “attuned to the weeping troubles of this world.” They learn everything they can about the child through covert yet close observation. Finally, they replicate the child’s physical appearance, “First, start with the bones and skin, stretching until one shudders and nearly snaps into the right size and body shape” (p. 4). This “double” or rather the new Henry, however, differs from the stolen child in many ways. Most important, he is a gifted musician. As with Aniday and his writing, Henry will use his musical ability to express himself and use it as a clue to figure out his true self. Henry has many lives with which to contend–his life as a child before he was stolen, his life as a changeling, and his new life as Henry Day. He must examine all of these lives to determine a new one.
While The Stolen Child is a classic coming-of-age story, it is also about love, the importance of memory, and the transformative power of art.
About the Author
Keith Donohue lives in Maryland, near Washington, D.C. He is currently the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the U.S. National Archives. Until 1998, he worked at the National Endowment for the Arts and wrote speeches for chairmen John Frohnmayer and Jane Alexander. He has ghostwritten articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and several other papers. Donohue holds a Ph.D. in English from the Catholic University of America. The Stolen Child is his first novel.
Preparing to Read
The questions and discussion points that follow are intended to guide your students through The Stolen Child. Following is a description of the changeling myth, questions regarding literary genre and narrative structure, as well as questions regarding the important characters and themes in the novel. The Stolen Child references several works of literature, including the poem from which the novel is named, W.B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child.” The guide includes questions about these poems and how their themes are echoed in the novel. In conclusion, there is a list of additional books for further study that involve similar ideas, narrative structures, or fantastical elements.
The Changeling Myth
The changeling myth says that a fairy, hobgoblin, or other magical creature takes the place of a human child. In the words of the changeling who takes Henry Day’s place in the novel, “We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own. The hobgoblin becomes the child, and the child becomes a hobgoblin” (p. 3).
Fairies, changelings, hobgoblins, and other subhuman creatures exist in folklore around the world, and perhaps the most comprehensive place to begin learning about them is D.L. Ashilman’s Folklinks (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folklinks.html). Dr. Ashilman’s site includes a section on the changeling legend with links to electronic text versions of tales from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. In addition, Terri Windling of The Endicott Studios takes a long and loving look at the changeling legend and even features the refrain from Yeats’s poem (http://www.endicott-studio.com/jMA0301/changelings.html).
William Butler Yeats wrote a wonderful yet sad poem called “The Stolen Child” in the 1890s. His premise was that the fairies could entice a child from his or her home to their hidden land, and that, furthermore, the child would be better off among the waters and the wild, far away from a human world “more full of weeping than you can understand.” Changelings appear in numerous other literary works. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the changeling boy is prized by both the fairy queen Titania who “never had so sweet a changeling” to the fairy king Oberon who says to her “I do but beg a little changeling boy/to be my henchman.” Other examples of the stolen child can be found in Thomas Middleton’s play The Changeling (1622), John Galt’s novel The Stolen Child (1833), and in scores of other works including contemporary novels and film.
The book also incorporates the cultural and sociological significance of the changeling legend. In her book Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (Ballantine, 2000), Dr. Sarah Hrdy digs at the roots of the changeling story from a social-anthropological standpoint. She writes about the practice in medieval times of parents abandoning babies with obvious birth defects and how they justified their infanticide by conjuring up an elaborate theological explanation that their “normal” child had somehow been replaced by this devilish creature in the cradle. As a result, the folktales and legends involving changelings became increasingly prevalent in Western Europe.
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
Structure, Technique, and Plot
1.In an interview about the book, the author, Keith Donohue, explains that the world is filled with such an overwhelming amount of information mediated through television, the Internet, and advertising, that people have lost the ability to stop and recognize the beauty and wonder in the world around them. “It’s not so much the disappearance of myth, or religion, or art, but our diminished sensibility to want or need those stories and images to create meaning in our lives. Our lack of enchantment. That’s why I wrote it as a fairy tale for adults for the subversive uses of enchantment.” What does the author mean when he says that we lack “enchantment”? In what way does the The Stolen Child use enchantment and why is it subversive?
2.Most fairy tales have a moral. If The Stolen Child is a fairy tale, what is the moral of the story?
3.At one point in the novel, Aniday explains, “My life with the faeries is more real to me than my life as Henry Day. And I wrote it down to show that we are more than a myth, a tale for children, a nightmare or daydream. Just as we need their stories to exist, so do the humans need us to give shape to their lives” (p. 294). Why do we need the stories of fairies to give shape to our lives?
4.By writing the story as a fairy tale, how has the author been able to explore themes in a different way than he would have in a more realistic, straightforward narrative?
1.In addition to reading the story as a fairy tale, the novel could also be read as a bildungsroman, a traditional form of the novel that follows the intellectual and moral development of a character, usually a boy, as he discovers and defines his place in the world and becomes an adult. How does this narrative form apply to The Stolen Child?
2.How is childhood portrayed in the novel? Read the first chapter in Aniday’s story closely and discuss his first impressions of the changelings. They are children, yet Aniday describes them as “ancients in wild children’s bodies” (p. 15). What does it mean to grow up in this novel? While this process is more obvious for Henry who now lives in the human world, what does it mean for Aniday to mature when he is essentially trapped in an eternal childhood?
3.How do Henry’s views on childhood change throughout the book? Note toward the end of the book that Henry imagines the changelings are trying to steal his son, all children suddenly appear sinister to him, “All children, except my own boy, became slightly suspect. They can be devious creatures. Behind every child’s bright eyes exists a hidden universe” (p. 266).
4.Childhood is often associated with innocence, but is anyone truly “innocent” in the novel?
1.The Stolen Child is told in alternating narratives beginning with Henry’s story. Why use this particular narrative structure? How does it help the author tell his story? What is he able to reveal by having two protagonists?
2.Initially, the two stories echo the other, but as the novel progresses, they are no longer parallel. Why does the author play with time in that way? When do things begin to shift? For example, in Chapter 33, we learn that the fairies have stolen Henry’s score. We don’t hear Henry’s version of this incident until the next chapter even though chronologically Henry’s narrative comes first. Is there any significance in this shift? Why not maintain parallel time lines?
3.At one point in the novel, Henry describes his thought process in composing music, “Two stories told at the same time–the inner life and the outer world in counterpoint. My method was not to juxtapose each chord with its double, for that is not reality. Sometimes our thoughts and dreams are more real than the rest of our experience, and at other moments that which happens to us overshadows anything that we might imagine” (p. 298). How does this description also apply to the alternating narrative structure of the book?
4.Both Henry and Aniday narrate their stories retrospectively. For example, Henry says, “Only now, after the strange events of this past year, do I have the courage to tell the story. . . . We change. I have changed.” (p. 11) What kind of perspective have they gained, if any? How does this alter the perspective of the reader? In what ways are both stories “confessions”?
1.Twins and other couples figure predominantly in the book: Henry and Aniday, Tess and Speck, Luchóg and Smaolach, Kivi and Blomma. What is the significance of the doubles? The doubles also appear in how Henry and Aniday perceive themselves as divided selves. Aniday explains, “I sat on the mountaintop and read, dreamt at night of two Specks, two Days, what we are, what we would be” (p. 275). Why is it significant that both Henry and Aniday feel that they lead double lives?
2.Is it possible to see Henry and Aniday as two halves of the same being? Could the book be read as a story of only one protagonist? For example, in a conversation Henry has with his mother, she suggests that Henry has his own “demons,” almost implying that there is no Aniday, only Henry’s imagination. “The trouble is inside, Henry, with you. . . . You are who you are, for good or ill, and no use torturing yourself with your own creations. . . .” (p. 300). Does the conclusion of the book support the idea there is only one protagonist? Discuss. How would this change the reading of the novel?
CHARACTER AND CONFLICT
1.Henry begins his story with the statement, “Don’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies anymore” (p. 3). Why is “changeling” a more appropriate word to describe Henry? Why isn’t the book entitled “The Changeling” instead of “The Stolen Child”?
2.As Henry grows up he becomes part of the human world again and repeatedly mentions incidents and moments that make him feel more “human.” What does being “human” mean for Henry? How does he define it? Does he ever feel that he is entirely of the “upper,” or rather the “human” world? If so, at what moment in the book does this happen?
3.In what ways does he try and distance himself from his “wild” past? As a young boy Henry still occasionally refers to his skills as a changeling, but these slowly disappear as his story progresses. Is there any changeling left in Henry by the end of his story?
4.Henry was also a child before he became a changeling. How does this other life figure into Henry’s quest? What elements from this earlier life are present in his life as Henry Day? In figuring out who he really is, Henry seeks knowledge of his first family, the Ungerlands. To conjure up his memories, he lets himself be hypnotized. If he is so concerned with someone discovering his secret, why does he submit to this process (Chapter 15)? What happens during the session?
5.Henry later learns that he revealed far more than he thought while he was hypnotized. How does he feel after he reads Thomas McInnes’s article, “The Stolen Child.” Why is he so angry? As upsetting as this article is to Henry, why is it also important for him to read it?
6.When he does finally learn more about the Ungerlands during his honeymoon and later meets a member of the Ungerland family, how does he react? Does he feel a connection to this family? Does it give him a greater understanding of himself? When does Henry finally feel like he is part of a family?
7.Henry learns the fate of the changeling who took his place as Gustav Ungerland. What is significant about the assertion that Gustav was an idiot savant or autistic?
8.It is through music that Henry is able to realize his hope of defining and expressing himself fully. In his prior life, Henry was a musical prodigy. This talent returns to him when he returns to the human world and music becomes a vital means for Henry to feel “human” as well as a means to express himself and all the secrets that burden and isolate him. Why does the author choose music as this means of expression for Henry?
9.There are four movements in Henry’s symphony: awareness, pursuit, lamentation, and redemption. Does the final concert offer Henry a chance at redemption? What does he need to be redeemed from?
10.Why is Henry’s performance at the conclusion of the novel so important in Henry’s journey toward self definition? Does he find his place in the world? Does he feel fully “human”? Is he at peace with all his lives?
11.In the end, however, it is Henry’s story that serves as his confession and not his music. Why is it significant that it is the written word that finally delivers him?
12.Discuss Henry’s final words. He talks about Tess, his past, his need for forgiveness, and finally proclaims, “. . . I am Henry Day.” In what way do these thoughts indicate that Henry has changed?
1.Aniday begins his story, “I am gone.” In what way is he “gone”? How can he find himself?
2.At what moment does Aniday begin to truly change into a changeling? Why is his encounter with the woman in the red coat significant for him both as a fairy and as a human child? Why does he refer to it frequently? In regards to the narrative structure, what purpose does this incident serve?
3.Discuss moments in Aniday’s story when he begins to feel at home among the changelings. Does Aniday feel as if he is one of the fairies? What qualities distinguish him from the other changelings? What does Aniday learn to appreciate about this new life? At one point, he mentions his first journal from the woods and refers to it as a “diary of the best years of my life” (p. 67). He clearly misses his former life so why would he consider these years to be his finest?
4.Why is his relationship with Speck so important to Aniday? Discuss the ways in which he finds solace and happiness with Speck.
5.Speck introduces him to the library and to books. In what way is reading all those stories related to the writing of his own story? Why is the library such an important place for Aniday?
6.As music ultimately helps to define Henry, writing does the same for Aniday. “I sat down to work on the true story of my world and the world of Henry Day. The words flowed. . . . At times, I questioned my reasons for written proof of my own existence . . . for stories were written down, and the words on the page were proof enough. Fixed and permanent in time, the words, if anything, made the people and places more real than the ever-changing world. . . . And I wrote it down to show that we are more than a myth, a tale for children, a nightmare or daydream. Just as we need their stories to exist, so do the humans need us to give shape to their lives. . . . I could control what mattered. And show the truth that lies below the surface life”(pp. 293–4). This is a significant passage in revealing Aniday’s need to write. Why does he believe so strongly in the power of words? If words are “fixed and permanent,” why does Aniday always need to revise his story? Why does he feel the need for permanence and for control over his story?
7.Compare Aniday’s feelings on writing with Henry’s, “I gave up reading novels in childhood, for their artificial worlds mask rather than reveal the truth. Novelists construct elaborate lies to throw off readers from discovering the meaning behind the words and symbols, as if it could be known” (p. 301). In what ways do their opinions differ? Why do they feel so differently about telling stories?
8.At one moment in the book, two of the fairies Smaolach and Luchóg discover the book that Aniday has been writing about his life and they read it. Luchóg asks Aniday, “My understanding is that an author doesn’t write a book without having one or more readers in mind. . . . One doesn’t go through the time and effort to be the only reader of your own book. Even the diarist expects the lock to be picked” (p. 271). Is this true? Who is Aniday writing for? Why does he need an audience?
9.After Speck leaves, Aniday looks for her, but he doesn’t follow her. “I called across the waters, but she was nowhere. Past this point of land, the whole world unfolded, too large and unknowable. All hope and courage left me. I dared not cross, so I sat on the bank and waited. On the third day, I walked home without her” (p. 253). Why does he lack the courage?
10. At the beginning of his story, Aniday merely begins with “I am gone.” In the last line of the book, he is also gone, but he “remember[s] everything.” What has changed? What does remembering everything mean for Aniday? Why is he no longer concerned with “putting down all the facts”? (p. 319). Finally, why is he now ready to go and find Speck?
Henry and Aniday
1.What happens when Henry and Aniday first see each other and make eye contact? Compare and discuss the difference in their reactions when Henry sees Aniday coming out of the library (p. 295–6).
2.When they finally meet in the room below the library Henry states, “I recognized him at once, for he looked exactly as I had as a young boy. My reflection in an old mirror. His eyes unmasked him, all soul but no substance, and he did not move but stared back silently without blinking, his breath mingling with mine. He expressed no emotion, as if he, too, had been waiting for this moment and for it all to be over” (p 306). Discuss Henry’s feelings in this passage. Will he get the forgiveness he seeks? What realization does he have about the connection between the two of them?
3.Why is the library a significant place for their first meeting? Why must their confrontation happen in the bowels of the library as opposed to somewhere in the “upper world”?
4.Compare Henry’s rendering of this scene with Aniday’s impressions, “. . . the sight of him disconcerted me, for no sign of kindness or recognition marked his features, no expression but raw disgust which twisted his mouth into a snarl, and rage beat out of his eyes. Like a madman, he clambered through the hole into our world. . . .” (p. 313). Why does he only see rage? Is that what Henry is actually feeling? While Henry feels the need to communicate with Aniday and ask for forgiveness, what does Aniday need from Henry?
5.After all these misperceptions, do the two finally experience a moment of connection? Henry explains, “the only language available to us was the music, so I played for him alone, forgot myself in its flow. . . . I realized he had left me alone in the world and would not return. . . . I was almost one of them” (p. 311). Why is this moment so important for Henry? What is he finally letting go of?
6.In turn, discuss how Aniday feels in this moment. “Henry kept smiling and playing, and like a book the music told a story that seemed, in part, a gift–as if, in our only common language, he was expressing what beat in his heart. . . . I thought he, too, was trying to say goodbye, goodbye to the double life” (p. 319). How does Aniday define the double life? Why is this recognition of Henry’s intentions so important to Aniday’s story?
7.In looking at the announcement for the concert one of the fairies asks, “Which one is the faery, and which is the child?” (p. 317). Why is this question significant at this point in the book? What do they finally learn and accept about one another?
8.Discuss the following passage: “Millennia of interplay had worn and polished the rocks, made them beautiful, and the stones had changed the water as well, altered its flow and pace, made turbulent its stilled predisposition. Symbiosis made the creek what it was. One without the other would change everything” (p. 151). Why is this an important revelation for Henry? Are Henry and Aniday symbiotic?
9.Finally, compare their final thoughts in their respective narratives. In what way have they both concluded their bildungsroman? What have the both realized about themselves and their identities? Why do they both give their confessions to other people, specifically Tess and Speck?
Billy and Ruth Day (Henry’s parents)
1.After his son has been changed and replaced with a changeling, Billy Day seems to suspect that something is wrong. Discuss the moments in Henry’s story when it is clear his father is suspicious. Is there any moment that is particularly pivotal in exacerbating the father’s isolation and pain?
2.His father grows more and more remote until he takes his own life on the way to see Henry (Chapter 13). Why does he choose to kill himself instead of confront Henry? How does this affect Henry? Why does he feel so emotionally distant? How does he respond to the fact that his father may know the truth, “It wasn’t the drink that killed him, but something else. While he may have had suspicions, he could not have figured out the truth about me. My deceptions were too careful and clever. . . .” (p. 111). Was he truly clever and careful?
3.Why do the mother and the father react so differently to Henry? One night, he goes to visit his mother to talk when he is feeling troubled. She recognizes that he changed the night he ran away and she cautions Henry about his own inner demons and concludes by saying, “I’ve known all along, Henry” (p. 301). Does she know that Henry is troubled or does she know that Henry is a changeling? Henry leaves without asking her any questions. What does she know? If she does know the truth, why didn’t she react the way her husband did? Why doesn’t Henry ask her any questions?
4.What happens when Aniday sees his real father? “He knelt on the damp grass and spread out his arms as if he expected me to run to him. But I was confused and did not know if he meant me harm, so I turned and sprinted, as fast as I could go. The monstrous gargle from his throat followed me deep into the forest until, as suddenly, the strange words stopped, yet I kept running all the way home” (p. 108–9) What does this moment reveal about Aniday? Is his connection to the human world entirely gone? What happens to Aniday when he returns to the changelings? Why do they react they way they do? What are they afraid of? What is Henry’s version of this story? How does his father’s behavior change after this point?
1.Describe Tess’s first appearance in Henry’s story. He suspects she is different from the other children, “I remember that Tess Wodehouse sat and stared without blinking, as if she realized a fundamental deception but could not unravel the trick” (p. 24). Does she ever unravel the trick of Henry? What does she recognize and appreciate about him that no one else does?
2.Why is Tess so important to Henry? Why is her love in particular so vital to his sense of self?
3.Just as he suspects his father knows, Henry also suspects that Tess knows his secret. Why in so many of his dreams does Tess know the truth? What does this indicate about Henry’s state of mind?
4.In what ways is Tess’s academic work on infanticide significant to the rest of the novel?
5.What do the fairies’ observation of Tess reveal about her that we don’t learn from Henry?
6.As with Aniday and Speck, why must Tess be the recipient of Henry’s story? Why not his mother or his sisters?
1.Discuss the character of Speck. What distinguishes her from the other fairies? Why does she become so important to Aniday? What brings them together?
2.He tries to tell her that he loves her, but Speck stops him before he can say the words. Why is Speck so hesitant to let Aniday tell her how he really feels about her? Why does Speck leave the changelings after this moment and venture out on her own?
3.After she leaves, Aniday is devastated. “Her absence leaves a hole in the skin stretched over my story. I spent an eternity trying to forget her, and another trying to remember” (p. 254). Why is the presence of Speck so necessary for Aniday to write his story? In what way does her absence eventually inspire him to continue to write and figure out his life?
4.During Henry and Aniday’s face to face encounter beneath the library, Aniday discovers Speck’s map on the ceiling. His interest in Henry is lost as he gazes up at the incredibly detailed map that Speck has left behind, “Hundreds of inscriptions, primitive and childlike, images laid over other images, each story told on top of its ancestor” (p. 314). Why is Aniday so riveted by the map on the ceiling? What does it reveal to him about Speck? Is there any connection between Aniday’s efforts to write his story and Speck’s map?
5.What is the significance of Henry, Edward, and Tess meeting Speck? Upon seeing her, Henry thinks, “what bothered me about her was not so much her mysterious appearance and disappearance, but her familiarity” (p. 265). Why does her familiarity bother him so much? What impression does Speck make on Edward?
6.In the end, is there any significance in the fact that Henry gets to stay with Tess and Aniday loses Speck? Do you think that Aniday finally finds her?
1.In what way is Tom McInnes part of both Henry’s and Aniday’s stories? How does he appear in Aniday’s story? How is he important in Henry’s story?
2.Why does the author use this particular character as a link between Henry and Aniday’s narratives? What purpose does Tom serve in the narrative structure?
3.Tom McInnes is a professor of anthropology, specializing in “[H]ow people use myth and superstition to explain the human condition” (p. 128). Is this idea prevalent in The Stolen Child?
1.What role do the hobgoblins play in defining Aniday? What is Aniday’s first impression of them? Discuss their rules and rituals and what they reveal about the fairy world. For example, when they steal a child why must he or she be reborn? Why do they give everyone new names? How different are their “powers” from those possessed by children? How are they and children alike?
2.Is there any significance in the fairy’s name? For example, Luchóg means “mouse” in Gaelic, Igel means “hedgehog” in German, and Kivi means “stone” in Finnish. Discuss the possible importance of these names in the novel as well as those of the remaining fairies: Béka, Onions, Blomma, Chavisory, Ragno, Zanzarra, Smaoloch, and, finally, Aniday.
3.Aniday’s predecessor is referred to as Chopin, but we never really know much about Gustav Ungerland as a changeling. Similarly, once Igel and the others depart the world, they are rarely discussed. Speck explains that “it is better not to know who you really are. To forget the past. Erase the name” (p. 243). Why do the fairies avoid mentioning those that have departed?
4.In what way does the world of the fairies begin to change after Igel chooses not change places with the child they have stolen? Why doesn’t he make the change? What are the repercussions of this decision for the fairies and how does it change their world?
5.There are several moments in the text when the fairies allude to the demise of their world. Igel proclaims, “Your paradise is vanishing. Every morning, I hear the encroaching roar of cars, feel the shudder of planes overhead. There’s soot in the air, dirt in the water, and all the birds fly away and never come back. The world is changing, and you must go while you can. I am not pleased to be trading places with this imbecile, but better that than to remain here” (p. 156). Why is it significant that Igel in particular begins to notice this change? How do they adapt to these changes? What is the significance of the fairy world disappearing?
6.Slowly their tribe diminishes. What happens to the other changelings? Do Kivi and Blomma let themselves get captured? If so, why? What choices to the fairies have in choosing their fates (Chapter 14)? In what way does Aniday try and assert more control over his fate?
7.In some ways, the conversations among the changelings are very revealing in regards to larger themes in the book such as memory, imagination, and storytelling. For example, in discussing Aniday’s struggle to remember, the fairy Chavisory remarks, “What the memory loses, imagination re-creates” (p. 316). Find other examples in the text when the fairies address the larger themes of the book. Do they provide insight that the human characters don’t?
8.Why do Henry and Speck feel the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the “indifferent children of the earth” is a fitting description of the changelings?
“Nostos” and Memory
1.The epigraph from the poem, “Nostos,” by Louise Glück reads: “We see the world once in childhood/The rest is memory.” Why do you think the author chooses to begin the book with this line? How does it relate to the novel? In what way is The Stolen Child about memory?
2.Analyze the poem with your students and discuss themes that can be found in both the poem and the novel.
3.The title of the poem, “Nostos,” is the Greek word for “return home.” It is also the root of the word nostalgia. Is the idea of returning home a fundamental question in The Stolen Child? Can Henry or Aniday return home or rather go back to their former life?
4.Note the lines in the poem that are similar to those experienced by Aniday in his quest to remember and learn the details of his life as a boy. He is always trying to remember, but his memories shift and conflict with the memories of the other changelings. As a result, he constantly revises his story. Discuss the ways in which this poem explores both the possibilities and limits of memory and compare it with the way memory is addressed in the The Stolen Child.
5.The poem continues, “Substitution of the immutable for the shifting, the evolving/Substitution of the image for relentless earth.” In what way do these ideas relate to The Stolen Child? Is this what Aniday and Henry are trying to do with their art (writing and music respectively)?
6.The poem questions both memory and the idea of having complete knowledge of something. As with the tree in the poem, “What/do I know of this place, the role of the tree for decades/taken by a bonsai. . . .” What is the narrator of the poem questioning in these lines? In relation to the novel, are Henry and Aniday able to truly know and understand everything about their past? Why must Henry let go of the past to realize who he is? Why must Aniday “remember everything”?
7.How do all these ideas culminate in the final lines of the poem which serve as the epigraph to the novel, “We look at the world once, in childhood/The rest is memory”? If we only see the world once, does that mean that all our other impressions are filtered through our childhood? What does this mean for Henry and Aniday, who in some ways both lose their childhood and never fully experience it?
8.Why does the book begin and end with an invocation of memory? In what ways does this poem further illustrate an essential theme of the novel?
“Night” by Louise Bogan
1.Analyze this poem with your students. What is it about?
2.In what ways are the themes of this poem similar to “Nostos” by Louise Glück and “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats?
3.Aniday and some other fairies observe some hikers in the woods who leave behind a book of poems, The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan. After reading a line from a poem, “That more things move/Than blood in the heart,” Aniday is flooded with thoughts of Speck. What is it about this particular line that reminds him of her?
4.What themes and ideas in this poem can be found in Donohue’s novel?
“The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats
1.Analyze the poem with your students. Discuss each stanza and the refrain. Why does the author borrow the name of this poem for his novel? What is the connection between the two? In what ways is the refrain reflected in the basic premise of the novel?
Come Away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
2.Discuss the four sections of the poem in relation to the book. What feeling do the “faery vats” and “reddest stolen cherries” evoke in the first stanza? What is the promise of this magical land? In what way does Yeats's fairyland inspire Keith Donohue in creating his own magical world? In what ways is it similar to the one in the poem? In what ways is it different?
3.Is the movement and freedom detailed in the second stanza reminiscent in any way of Aniday’s real fairy world? “Mingling hands and mingling glances/Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap/And chase the frothy bubbles. . . .” Compare with the details of Aniday’s real life in the woods.
4.What is different about the final stanza? Discuss the images in these lines. Does the narrator of the poem find beauty in these images of the human world? If so, why does the child still choose to leave? In what way does this final stanza relate to Henry’s feelings about being in the real world? Although the world is full of troubles and “anxious in its sleep,” why does Henry choose the human world? In turn, why does Aniday choose to never return? Does Aniday’s choice relate in any way to Yeats’s poem?
5.There are four movements in Henry’s symphony: awareness, pursuit, lamentation, and redemption. Is it possible to analyze Yeats’s poem in regard to these four ideas?
6.In what way does the stolen child in the poem connect with the stolen child in the novel? Who is the stolen child?
7.Note the echoes of the poem in the novel (other than the title). In describing which children they take, Henry says, “Not any boy or girl will do, but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world” (p. 4). Also, in closing, Aniday says “Our kind are few, and no longer deemed necessary. Far greater troubles exist for children in the modern world, and I shudder to think of real and lurking dangers” (p. 319). Do these echoes reflect themes found in both the novel and the poem?
BEYOND THE BOOK
1.Discuss other fairy tales for adults or books that incorporate changelings such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Compare how the changeling myth is used and to what end. Also, does the use of a fairy tale in exploring larger themes work in these books as it does in The Stolen Child?
2.Discuss another book with an alternating narratives, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, and compare the ways in which this narrative device enhances the story.
3.Read and discuss the nonfiction books that the author was inspired by in writing the book, specifically Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Donohue also mentions The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson and the rise of “new expressionism” in other novels and films such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” What is Donohue up to in the intertwined narratives of The Stolen Child?
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger
The Confessions of Max Tivoli: A Novel, Andrew Sean Greer
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim
The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar
This teacher’s guide was written by Karen Iker. Karen Iker has a master’s degree in American literature and has worked in the book publishing industry for over twelve years.
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