Charles de Lint, The Little Country (Morrow, 1991; Pan Books (UK), 1993; Tor, 2001)
Under the earth I go,
On the oak-leaf I stand,
I ride on the filly that never was foaled,
And I carry the dead in my hand.
Scots Traditional, collected by Hamish Henderson
Charles de Lint dedicates The Little Country to "...all those traditional musicians who, wittingly or unwittingly, but with great good skill, still seek to recapture that first music." A traditional Celtic musician himself, de Lint has peopled The Little Country with musicians and filled it with music. All of the chapter titles are titles of (mostly) traditional tunes, and there is an appendix of tunes written by Janey Little, the book's main character -- tunes actually written by de Lint himself. (Tinker's Own on their Old Enough to Know Better CD recorded de Lint's "The Tinker's Black Kettle," one of the tunes in this novel.) Any readers who are at all musically inclined may find themselves itching to reach for their instruments and try out the tunes.
All of this music serves as a complex yet clear harmony for a fast-moving, exciting story. The story rollicks back and forth between two separate plot lines that interweave in a tight polyphony before resolving into one joined, deeply satisfying "Coda." Devoted de Lint fans and first-time readers alike will find The Little Country a resoundingly good read.
The story begins with a professional "small pipe" player, Janey Little. In her grandfather's attic, Janey finds hidden a book written by her grandfather's old friend, author William Dunthorn. When she looks more closely at the book, entitled The Little Country, she notices that it has been published in an edition of only one copy. As Janey begins to unravel the mystery behind this secret book, strange things start to happen in her life and the lives of her family and friends in the small Cornish town of Mousehole. Why does someone break into the house in an attempt to steal the book? And why are the book's contents different for each person who opens its covers? Dunthorn believed that music holds a key to hidden realms and states of mind. Could he have secreted that key somehow within the pages of his last book? Does that secret have something to do with the elusive tune that Janey begins to hear around corners and in her dreams?
Weaving in and out of Janey's story is the story of Jodi Shepherd, the protagonist of William Dunthorn's secret book -- at least in the version of the book that Janey is reading. Jodi must defeat the malignant Widow Pender and uncover the secret of a legendary race of tiny people, the Smalls, in order to preserve the memory and sense of magic in our increasingly rational and mechanized world. Janey's and Jodi's lives grow more and more intertwined, even though they never actually meet each other. In the end, each helps to save Life's mystery, its "first music."
One of the joys of all of Charles de Lint's stories is their strong sense of place. De Lint uses not only vivid description, but local color and cultural allusions--both real and imaginary--to paint a vibrant backdrop for his tales. I find myself going through each of his stories with a notepad handy, ready to jot down every book and song title, every author and musician de Lint mentions. Some of them he has invented, but some actually exist, and tracking them down is always rewarding.
In The Little Country, Janey Little's favorite musician is the late Billy Pigg (1902-1968), a noted Northumbrian piper. Since her favorite author is her grandfather's friend "Billy" Dunthorn--whose secret book is causing such a stir--Janey likes to use the expression "two Billy's worth of bully" to describe anything especially wonderful. Pigg is considered by many to be partly responsible for keeping English traditional music alive, and Schofield and Say's book, Billy Pigg: The Border Minstrel has been reviewed by Green Man Review reviewer Jo Morrison. In case some readers wonder why a Northumbrian musician is so important to a story set in Cornwall, de Lint offers us a clue. He quotes Bill Charlton, founder of the Northumbrian Gathering, as saying, "[Pigg's] playing, to me, seemed to typify the wild hills and moorland." De Lint tells us in The Little Country that music, true music, is the bloodstream of the world. It seems that he sees Pigg as a vessel for that stream, just as he has created Janey Little to be.
Charles de Lint is one of a group of authors largely responsible for creating and popularizing the sub-genre of folk tales and fantasy stories in modern settings, as well as so-called "urban fantasy" or "urban folk." You can find a complete bibliography of his work, as well as other information by and about him, on his excellent Web site.