April 2004

Hilary Leon

fiction

Medicine Road by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lintís new book, Medicine Road, is a first-rate folk tale, the story of a jackalope (thatís a mythical cross between a rabbit and an antelope, for the uninitiated) and a red dog whose run-in with a meddling Coyote Woman changes their lives forever. She transforms them into ďfive-fingered beingsĒ for one hundred years, on the condition that, to retain their human shapes, they must each find a soul mate before the end of that span. If one fails, both will lose.

A compelling beginning, and de Lint makes the most of it by quickly jumping to the present day, with only a few weeks of human life remaining to Alice, the former jackalope, and Jim Changing Dog. Enter Bess and Laurel Dillard, twin sisters and bluegrass musicians from hillbilly country, visiting the Sonoran Desert for a gig. The two are inevitably caught up in the Coyote Womanís story when Jim falls in love with Bess.

I think you know what happens from here, but itís a tribute to Charles de Lintís masterful storytelling that the novel unfolds with rich, absorbing prose, despite its predictability. To add a touch of uniqueness, the tale begins with an anonymous narrator, but the rest of the book shifts agilely from character to character, with Bess, Jim, Laurel, Alice, Ramona (the necessary villain, but not an unredeemable one), Aliceís husband, and even the Coyote Woman each telling a piece from his or her point of view.

Of course, itís impossible not to mention the illustrations, by the eminent Charles Vess. The finely detailed ink drawings scattered throughout the book are by turns sweet, simple, and stylized. Vess has done more sophisticated work, notably (in my view) his illustrations for Neil Gaimanís Stardust, but the art here is beautifully matched with the novelís uncomplicated story.

According to the book jacket, this is apparently ďthe first in a series of linked short novels,Ē all of which will include Vess illustrations. Presumably these later works will further illuminate the brief but intriguing glimpses of the Dillard girlsí prior supernatural experiences. A quick check of the publisherís web site adds the useful fact that Medicine Road (and, I expect, these later linked novels) will be available only in two rather fancy editions: a signed hardcover for thirty-five dollars, and a deluxe limited run with additional art for sixty dollars.

As a librarian, I find this rather too bad, as Medicine Road is a lovely story that would appeal widely to readers of fairy tales, folk tales, and the better sort of young adult fantasy. Its immersion in Native American tradition makes it especially appealing, and its gay-friendly sensibility is particularly timely. I can only hope a future trade paperback edition will one day make the novel more affordable for libraries and their readers.

Medicine Road by Charles de Lint, Illustrated by Charles Vess
Subterranean Press
ISBN: 1931081964