Timeless and destined to be a classic, Mordicai Gerstein's new novel, The Old Country is a truly important book. With a rich tapestry of setting and mood of setting and mood, Gerstein's lyrical and rhythmic language weaves together elements of fantasy, folklore, and old-fashioned storytelling. From the very first pages of the Prologue, readers are transported to the Old Country, where "every winter was a hundred years and every spring a miracle…where the water was like music and the music was like water…where all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic-and there was war." It is here that readers become entrenched in a story that not only delivers adventure, mystery and risk, but also asks important questions about justice, power, one's nature, choice, war, and family.
The journey of The Old Country starts as Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox and she and the fox exchange shape. Gisella's quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its own shape. She encounters sprites, talking animals, a chicken that lays a golden egg, a court with a spider for a judge-and bloodshed and destruction. Finally, looking into the eyes of the fox once more, she faces a strange and startling choice about her own nature.
ETC: Your book depicts the disruption of the "old country," and the way people have had to live since this kind of upheaval began taking place all around the world. Is this one of the ideas you had in mind when you wrote the book?
Gerstein: Yes, especially the disruption of minority groups that are the first to blamed, attacked and scapegoated. The Crags stand in for the Jews, Bosnians, Kurds, Gypsies, and all the others. The book is also about how the world of fairy tales and magic was transformed and maybe destroyed in the last century by mechanized war. As a kid, Eastern Europe was, for me, where the fairy tales came from, and where my father and grandparents came from. Then it became the place where World War II was being fought. In my book I try to combine those two different ideas of Europe.
ETC: What does The Old Country have to say about people who rule? And about those who are ruled?
Gerstein: It says that those who rule and are all-powerful one day may be dragged off to the gallows the next. It also says that rulers can be selfish and stupid and do bad things— it even wonders if they are sometimes evil. Finally, it says that people who are ruled and are unhappy can sometimes change their situation.
ETC: What elements of today's world do you see reflected in The Old Country?
Gerstein: Well to me, much of The Old Country is a reflection of today's world. For example, when I was writing the trial of the Emperor and Queen, and the Emperor says, "This court has no authority over me!" I heard (Slobodan) Milosevic say the same thing the next day in The Hague. All the things that happened to the people in the book are happening to people in our world everyday—except maybe changing places with foxes, which is my metaphor for entering adolescence and finding yourself in a strange body full of new sensations.
ETC: Your last book,The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which won the Caldecott, could be described as taking place in a pre world. It was a world of wonder, a world in which anything was possible. Yet, in The Old Country, there is a world of danger and injustice all around—a post-9/11 world. Is that what you had in mind?
Gerstein: Not really. Both worlds still exist side by side: the world of threat and danger, and the world of people who do wonderful, impossible things. Both worlds have always been with us and will always continue to be. The names and faces of the threats and dangers change, but so do the wonders.
ETC: What kind of conversations between adults, parents, grandparents, and children do you hope The Old Country will open up?
Gerstein: Ah! Wonderful, deep conversations about all the above subjects. I hope they all have questions like
yours and that they try to find their own answers.
In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit threw a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center and spent an hour walking, dancing, and performing high-wire tricks a quarter mile in the sky. This picture book captures the poetry and magic of the event with a poetry of its own: lyrical words and lovely paintings that present the detail, daring, and--in two dramatic foldout spreads-- the vertiginous drama of Petit's feat.
Roaring Brook (July 2003)