I still remember the day I bought my copy of The Wild Swans. I’d been on a retold-fairy-tale bender and had devoured almost every book listed in the back of the Fairy Tale Series books edited by Terri Windling, at least the ones I could track down. I knew I wanted something in a similar vein, and the back cover blurb of The Wild Swans promised exactly what I was looking for. The book delivered, too; it turned out to be a stirring novel blending the fairy tale “The Wild Swans” with modern-day issues.
The Wild Swans consists of two interwoven storylines. In one, a young woman must weave coats of stinging nettles for her brothers to save them from an enchantment, all the while remaining silent until she has finished. This plotline is a fairly straightforward rendition of the classic tale, particularly Hans Christian Andersen’s version. Peg Kerr’s most substantial change to the story is in its setting; she places the events of the tale in a Puritan village.
The other plotline, whose chapters are interspersed with Eliza’s chapters, takes place in 1980s New York. A young gay man, Elias, is kicked out of his house and taken in by Sean, a charismatic musician. Sean becomes his lover and introduces him to all his friends; they become his family-of-choice. Elias’ newfound joy is not to last, though. The AIDS epidemic strikes and takes his friends from him, one by one.
The two stories, on the surface, are nothing alike, but Kerr weaves them together in subtle and surprising ways. They share a great deal of thematic material: prejudice, the dangers of silence, and the way love can keep hope and beauty alive even in tragedy. The Wild Swans broke my heart and then fused it back together. I recommend it with enthusiasm.
If I have any quibble, it’s that the secondary characters — Eliza’s brothers, and Elias’ and Sean’s friends — are not fleshed out as fully as one might like. Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest retells the same tale but with more development of the brothers; their sister’s quest is lent added urgency by the fact that we care for these men as individuals. Then again, what with the dual storyline, The Wild Swans might have become too long if Kerr had spent more page space on these characters.