It's the time of year when many readers indulge in books about the supernatural, so here's a review/recommendation of the Pamela Dean novel Tam Lin, courtesy of our excellent substitute librarian, Annie Schapira:
October is a time of cool nights, warm sweaters, and scary stories, and I am a fan of all of the above. However, my favorite book to revisit this season, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991), is not what I would consider a horror story, although its final reckoning takes place on Halloween, when this world and another meet at a crossroads.
The novel is based upon an old Scottish ballad about a brave heroine who must battle merciless fairy folk for the life and soul of the man she loves. Set at a Midwestern college in the 1970s, Dean’s retelling follows literature student Janet Carter as she balances school work, friendships, and romance on a campus populated by mysterious, almost otherworldly, teachers and students. Classics scholars ride through the night on horseback, books fly out of dormitory windows, and classmates speak and act as if they are much older than they appear to be. Janet does her best to take all of this in stride, unaware of how closely and unexpectedly she will become entangled in the mystery.
I first picked up Tam Lin during my early teenage years, thanks to an older sister who nurtured my love of fiction and the fantastic. She half-jokingly warned me not to expect my college experience to resemble the one about which I was reading. The story tastes strongly, though pleasantly, of wish fulfillment, even - or perhaps especially - for privileged young people (which we were) who attended or would someday attend liberal arts schools (which we did). Janet’s college life is full of intellectual rewards, lushly described meanderings around the campus, and beautiful, brilliant, passionate, endlessly intriguing classmates and friends who speak in literary quotations. But even more importantly, for many passionate readers, especially of fantasy, the book also offers a broader message of hope: that the search for wisdom, comfort, and inspiration in literature, as well as the possibility of magic in the world around us, do not have to end with the transition into adulthood. I can think of worse wishes for a novel to fulfill.
Like the song that inspired it, Dean’s Tam Lin is a story of a young woman who must reckon with supernatural forces in order to save her love and herself. It’s also a story about growing up, about finding one’s own creative voice, and about the ordinary magic that arises when we’re fortunate enough to find a group of extraordinary people to call our friends. Steeped in the sights and smells of autumn, brimming with love for stories and poetry and theater, and haunted by a few restless ghosts, this book is spookily good company for the days and weeks before Halloween.