Re-Imagining New York: Gregory Maguire’s Novel, A Wild Winter Swan
WRITTEN BY KRISTEN MCDERMOTT
Gregory Maguire is best known for his “Return to Oz” series, beginning with the massive 1995 bestseller Wicked, which inspired one of the most popular Broadway musicals of the current millennium. He has become one of the most insightful and consistently entertaining voices in modern fantasy literature, turning out volume after volume of sharp, funny, psychologically complex re-imaginings of childhood classics and fairy tales. He locates stories like the Oz books, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, and The Nutcracker firmly in the historical periods that produced them, peopling them with recognizable humans who respond to their magical situations in both historically and emotionally realistic ways.
His latest, A Wild Winter Swan, continues and varies this pattern. The fairy tale that gives this historical fantasy its shape is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.” But rather than modernize Andersen’s characters, he creates a 20th-century protagonist in Laura Ciardi, a dreamy, discontented semi-orphan who lives with her grandparents in a handsome but dilapidated five-story Upper East Side brownstone. Laura’s life is in disarray for a number of reasons, when the sudden arrival of a mysterious, swan-winged boy offers a possible alternative to the oppressive future her elders have mapped out for her.
The link between A Wild Winter Swan’s modern setting and the magical world of Andersen’s story might not seem immediately apparent at first; however, as Maguire explains, “Besides the obvious and wonderful existence of the monument to the author, erected in Central Park six years before my novel takes place, Andersen’s stories seem largely to concern how ostracized people can be made whole through a magic spell and the charms of their own innate virtues. Think ‘The Ugly Duckling.’ Think ‘The Little Mermaid.’ New York City has always been a beacon to those who have not felt safe or beloved where they were born and has called them home to its enchanted streets and avenues. (‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’) Andersen’s homely rural and fantastic tales have every right to be in New York—because everything and everyone can find a place there, too.”
Laura is a character who longs to find her place in that world, but is isolated from her peers by her learning disabilities, and from her family by a constellation of tragedies. Her Italian immigrant guardians are loving but distracted by their struggle to assimilate into upper-middle-class America, seduced (as Maguire suggests the entire era was) by the glamour of American success: “[I]sn’t there some magic in the images of New York from the 1950s and early 1960s? Those images that made it into the romantic movies and the society photo shoots and advertisements for luxury goods? Into the sitcoms of the 50s and early 60s, too. A candy-coated time of trust in American industry, government, and prosperity. I didn’t grow up in New York City, but upstate New York; still, the City supplied us all with a sense of a beating heart for American culture of that time. It was the center of the world.”
The novel is set in December 1962 because, Maguire says, “I wanted to set this story in a time of innocence for the nation, and also to evoke my own relatively trouble-free childhood days. . . . Many, like myself, grew up as protected and therefore ignorant as Laura is.” For Maguire, Laura’s story is both universal and personal: “To a child with six siblings growing up in Albany, New York, as I was, the notion of living as an only child in a brownstone in the Upper East Side of Manhattan would have seemed magic in itself—not unlike Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, whose garret bedroom is secretly turned by her kindly next-door neighbor into a little chamber of cozy delights. But as my own birth mother died in childbirth when I was born, and I spent some of my earliest months in a Catholic orphanage before being reunited with my family, I still feel Laura’s sense of dislocation. . . . Laura is alone, which makes her susceptible to a magic visitor from a fairy tale.”
In the novel, during preparations for an elaborate Christmas dinner at which Laura’s grandfather hopes to secure an investor for his gourmet grocery, a strange young man literally flies into Laura’s window. Her efforts to conceal the interloper, with whom she becomes romantically fascinated, are both hilarious and poignant. At the same time, Laura begins to realize some uncomfortable truths about herself, and also sees her own fantasies come to messy, threatening life: “The storyteller inside her was defeated by the irruption of real story.”1 In spite of these challenges, Laura is a brilliant observer of the adults around her. Unable to write well and uncomfortable with her outsider status, she narrates her own life continuously inside her head, adjusting details to make the events of her day meaningful, exotic, funny, or simply bearable. “She had heard words in her head for such a long time. She would keep trying to tell herself into her own life.”2
Because he often uses fairy tales as the inspiration for his novels, Maguire’s work represents a wide variety of time periods and cultures, from Renaissance Italy (Mirror, Mirror) to Romantic-era Germany (Hiddensee) to Victorian Oxford (After Alice). His settings are rendered with rich, realistic detail, which brings his fantastical plots to vibrant life. His own research is part scholarship, part experience: “Of all my books, A Wild Winter Swan was the easiest to research as to setting. The only New York sites it references are Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the house on the invented dead end street, Van Pruyn Place. I did stroll around the genuine sites, which I knew well enough anyway, to remind myself of the relationship between the Andersen statue and the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, say. I circumnavigated Rockefeller Center to study the bas-reliefs for images of flying figures (there are several).”
His research helped him evoke both past and present New York. “In 1960 or 1961, close to the time in which A Wild Winter Swan takes place, my mother took me via the train from upstate to visit New York City for a weekend. We stayed at the Park Sheraton Hotel on Central Park South; ate at an Automat; saw the Bolshoi Ballet and a Rodin exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and, on Broadway, “The Sound of Music.” It wasn’t at Christmastime but it was magical nonetheless. Times Square at night!—the exhaust on a cold night coming out of a monstrous cigarette-smoking citizen, advertising Camel cigarettes!—the dizzying competition among neon and spotlit advertisements! I had my own memory of urban magic to draw upon for A Wild Winter Swan.”
In particular, the Ciardi house in A Wild Winter Swan is so lovingly described, so full of lived-in detail, that it is essentially another character in the novel. Maguire took special care to bring to life a kind of house unique to Manhattan:
“My main item of concern, though, was to find a street near the East River that featured brownstones such as the one in which I had lodged the Ciardi family. I started about East 52nd Street, roughly, and made a morning of trekking up to the East 80s. I got more and more worried. There has been a great deal of development in the York Avenue area since the 1960s, and for a while I was afraid that I wouldn’t find any brownstones at all on the numbered streets. There were many brick homes, but they weren’t of the vintage and dignity I was imagining. Then (and I forget which street it is) I came upon a street with three or five townhouses on one side, and one or two opposite. It was all I could find. But that they existed at all in that neighborhood gave me a huge sense of relief. They almost seemed proof that my story could take place after all — that it might, on one level or another, even be true. Or come true — all in good time.”
His inspiration, however, comes as much from books as from places. He has said of After Alice, “For this book, I went with my middle-school daughter to Oxford two summers in a row, to walk around and look at buildings, light, trees, buskers, graduates, dons and scouts, and other waking nonsense. Of course, C. S. Lewis was inspired by Oxford, and Tolkien wrote there, and Philip Pullman’s magisterial cycle, His Dark Materials, starts and ends there. But Lewis Carroll got there first. I was trying to write under the influence.”3
A Wild Winter Swan’s New York has its own literary influences, Maguire notes: “[T]wo books from the 60s — books I read when I was young. . . . One was Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, published in 1964, which dealt with more humble members of New York society but drew a fresh and full picture for me. The other was Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, also appearing in 1964. Harriet lives in the same neighborhood as A Wild Winter Swan, and I like to think that Laura Ciardi in my book might be passing Harriet M. Welsch on the sidewalks of East End Avenue.”
I agree that anyone who loved Harriet should definitely get to know Laura! Maguire’s readers will appreciate her dry humor, her openhearted fascination with the alien physicality of the swan boy, and her willingness to face discomforting truths. As in all his novels, the magic and wonder of fairy tales and fantasy appears in sharp relief when juxtaposed with the rich reality of his settings and characters. A Wild Winter Swan combines the best of fantasy, historical, and coming-of-age novels into a completely original story with an unforgettable protagonist.
1. Gregory Maguire, A Wild Winter Swan, p. 79.
2. Gregory Maguire, A Wild Winter Swan, p. 191.
3. Lev Grossman “Novelist Lev Grossman Asks Gregory Maguire about After Alice,” Omnivoracious, October 26, 2015. https://www.amazonbookreview.com/post/9fe367f4-5aeb-4fd8-ac7d-22078419dcd1/lev-grossman-asks-gregory-maguire-about-after-alice
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Kristen McDermott is a Professor of English at Central Michigan University and a regular book reviewer for Historical Novels Review.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)