fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book reviews Mordicai Gerstein The Old CountryThe Old Country by Mordecai Gerstein

Gisella lives in the Old Country, where “every winter lasts one hundred years, and every spring is a miracle.” In one tumultuous day, her brother Tavido is drafted into the army on the eve of war, even though they are Crags, a despised ethnic group. When she goes into the forest to hunt the fox that has been stealing her family’s chickens, she makes the mistake of looking into the eyes of the fox, and finds herself in the body of the fox, and the fox in control of her own body. When she makes it back to her farm, she finds that the war has come to her farm, and everyone is missing. Accompanied by the family cat, a chicken named April, and the sprite Quick, Gisella sets off on a cross-country adventure to find her brother, her family, and her own body.

The Old Countryreads like a folktale. With an evocative prose, Mordicai Gerstein takes us to a pseudo-European country in an early 19th century setting. He sketches out a wide range of characters and fantastical creatures with crystalline clarity: the jury of birds, an owlman with wide yellow eyes, the tragic Tavido, and Great-Aunt Tanteh, who saves her family from execution as spies because she knows how to make chickens lay golden eggs.

As Gisella struggles to keep her humanity while in the guise of a fox, she deals with the inhumanity of war as she passes through country and villages devastated by war. The Crag people have been herded into prison camps, and are being used as cannon fodder by both sides in the war, and Gisella has to decide what is most important — saving the Crag people, or herself. The story has an almost timeless quality to it. It felt like floating in a lake during a warm summer day — an enjoyable experience, even if nothing much is happening at the time. That is my one criticism of the story; it tends to stall in places. Every so often the story went off the rails, and as the story is told through the device of a grandmother talking to her granddaughter, the interruption in the middle of the story for the two to talk brought the book to an unnecessary pause. I feel that the framing device of the storytelling would have been more effective as a bookend, rather than interspersed throughout.

The Old Countryevokes a range of mythological and fantastical tropes, without feeling like a worn retread of previous material. Rather it has the moral weight of some of the old Grimm fairy tales, crossed with an Aesop’s Fable. Gerstein takes on the human destruction caused by war with painful reality, so though The Old Country is a short novel at less than 150 pages and marketed towards a younger audience, I would recommend it for older YA readers and adults who like folk and fairy tales.

The Old Country — (2003) Young adult. Publisher: The Old Country — (2003) Publisher: From the winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal comes a memorable new work, a novel of singular insight and imagination that transports readers to the Old Country, where “all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic — and there was war.” There, Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox, and she and the fox exchange shapes. Gisella’s quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its shape. Sheencounters magic, bloodshed, and questions of power and justice — until finally, looking into the eyes of the fox once more, she faces a strange and startling choice about her own nature. Part adventure story and part fable; exciting, beautifully told, rich in humor and wisdom, The Old Country is the work of an artist and storyteller at the height of his powers.


  • Ruth Arnell

    RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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