Friday, June 24, 2011

Fallen into Obscurity: The Doll Who Came Alive by Enys Tregarthen

As a bookseller, I don't have the luxury of reading every book in my stock. Occasionally I'll get sucked into a book while I'm writing a description about it, or I'll be cataloging a book and think, "Gee, I'd like to read this one at some point." It is the latter of these two which brought me to the book I want to write about today.

It's an obscure title, but one with an interesting history and subject matter that fascinates many people, in fact some dedicate their entire lives to it. The Doll Who Came Alive by Enys Tregarthen was probably written in the late 1800s, but not published until the 1940s. Tregarthen, whose real name was Nellie Sloggett, was housebound from an early age due to a crippling childhood illness. During that time she became fascinated with Cornish legends and folklore and began to study and write about it, retelling many stories which had been passed down from one generation to the next in her native Cornwall. A few of her books were published during her lifetime under the pseudonym Nellie Cornwall, but most of her work would not be published until long after her death in 1923. Elizabeth Yates, an American author, took on the task of culling through Tregarthen's papers and writings, editing stories and manuscripts for publication, which is how this particular story came to be published so posthumously.


 The story is about a little girl named Jyd Trewerry, who has a rather sad childhood, being raised by a wretched stepmother, is so poor she has no shoes and has only one dress and barely a crumb of food to eat. One day a sailor sees Jyd sitting on her stoop and takes pity on the child and gives her a Dutch articulated doll. Jyd, promises the sailor that she will "love her till she was alive like me." The story progresses at a pleasant pace, at times a bit too precious, but the reader gets to revel in the magic that does eventually bring the doll to life and we feel for Jyd as she tries to provide for the doll the way her own stepmother never did for her.

The story takes a giant leap into the fantastic--as if an anthropomorphic doll weren't enough--as Jyd and the doll are singing an old Cornish tune about three Piskey knights; the song begins to come true. Before Jyd realizes just how dire the situation is, she sings the last lines of the song wherein one of the knights gets to choose "the fairest in thy sight." You can probably guess what happens; but the knight chooses the doll and whisks her away. Jyd pursues, but, as mythological beings tend to do, the knights and her doll have vanished.

I won't give away the ending, in case you would rather read the tale yourself, but I will say the ending is rather how one would hope it would end. However, the means to get that end are problematic. Jyd falls asleep for an entire season, but the reader is given no explanation for why, and Jyd has very little reaction to the realization of it; it just is. The matter of what happens to the doll while Jyd is sleeping the summer away is also problematic for the simple reason that her story sounds like it would be fascinating and would enhance the book overall, but it is rather glossed over.

By and large,The story is engaging for the reader. I was able to suspend my disbelief that Jyd loved the doll into life, but the sudden injection of Cornish folklore halfway through is a bit jarring. While the story does indeed have its flaws, its strongest quality is the emotional bond the reader will form with Jyd. A child, inner or actual, will identify with the desire to have a treasured toy come to life, will feel for Jyd as she loses her best friend and will be overjoyed by the eventual outcome.

Tregarthen's published works about folklore, and retelling Cornish legend are worth checking out, especially because many of the legends and stories were never put to the written word before she took it to task.

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