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Book Reviews by Sarah Benson

The Stolen Child (2006)
The Stolen Child is a stunning debut for first-time novelist Keith Donohue.

The author is married, has four children, and works "at a small, embattled agency that gives grants to archives across the country to preserve and publish the records of the American experience." He's working on another novel about myths in America.

The story follows the lives of two Henry Day; the Henry Day who is stolen by changelings as a child and becomes one of them, and the changeling who takes Henry Day's place in the human world. The story is at times both tender and horrifying. As both Henry Days must grow up in a life that is not their own, they long to learn who they were before they switched places.

The story opens with the narrator explaining to the reader:

"I am a changeling" - a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do. We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own. Not just any child will do, either. The changelings look for boys or girls who are baffled by their young lives.

Apparently, it is rare to find such a soul, and it may take a changeling decades to find a suitable child. Our changeling narrator has found such a child -- seven year old Henry Day. After months and months of research on the child's life, family, and habits, the changeling finally has a chance to switch places with Henry when the boy decides to run away from home. While the seven year old is hiding in a tree in the woods, the changeling switches places with him. Having gone through a tedious, painful process of stretching out bone and cartilage and manipulating his facial features, the changeling now looks just like the real Henry Day. When, hours later, search and rescue comes searching for the missing seven year old, they take home the changeling instead.

The real Henry Day is turned into a changeling and becomes known as "Aniday." As a changeling, Aniday will live out his life stuck in a child's body. Only when his turn comes along to replace another child will he be able to regain a place in the human world. This may not happen for many decades.

The chapters of the book are narrated alternatively by Henry Day and Aniday. The first part of the story deals with each individual as he adjusts to his new life. Henry Day is tested in numerous ways. He must first convince everyone, especially his family, that he is the real Henry Day. He quickly wins over his mother and baby twin sisters, expertly playing the piano for them and singing in a voice that exactly mimics the original singer. His father, however, never quite seems to warm up to his son, leading the reader to wonder whether he suspects something is amiss.

Henry Day is also challenged when it comes to growing up. He must constantly stretch himself out a little so as to appear to grow normally. However, at times, such as during his first near-sexual experience, he realizes that while he has made himself taller, he has not properly grown out everything. This leads to quite a bit of embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Aniday spends his days frolicking in the woods. Often bored, he begins to write down a diary of his life as a changeling, as well as what he can remember from his short human life. The other changelings steal paper and writing material for him, and his love of the written word leads him and new friend Speck to start sneaking into the public library at night where they spend countless hours reading books to each other. As Aniday's mind matures, he begins to develop feelings for Speck, but his lack of a normal upbringing leads him unsure of how to handle this, and his body remains that of a child.

As the years go on, both characters begin to obsess about who they were before they were stolen. Henry Day has dreams in German, and he wonders whether his piano playing skills are a leftover fragment of another life. Aniday continues to think about his mother, father, and baby sisters, and becomes curious about the changeling who took his place.

The Stolen Child is a quiet, poignant story, often leading the reader to feel sorry for both Henry Day and Aniday. Henry Day grows up, falls in love, gets married, and all the while deals with both his guilt over stealing the life of the real Henry and his curiosity about who he was before becoming a changeling. Meanwhile, Aniday eventually tries to track down the Henry Day who is living his life, wanting to see what could have been. He is happy to get glimpses of his mother, but never recognizes his sisters when he sees them, for though decades have passed, he only remembers them as babies.

The story is elegantly written and thought-provoking, raising questions about our humanity and putting focus on the elements that define "a grownup." The lives of the two characters occasionally intersect, and because the reader gets to be in the mind of both of them, it is possible to see certain situations in a different light than the narrator himself sees them.

The Stolen Child contains kidnapping, suicide, sex, and serious adult themes. It is a very adult fantasy and probably not appropriate for younger readers. It is written in a way that provokes strong emotions in the reader, yet is not in itself overly sentimental. The ending is open and leaves the reader wondering what will become of the two characters. Both individuals seem to have accepted their new lives and come to a point where they can move on from the past, and though I do not feel overly optimistic about how happy they will be in the future, I sincerely want them to be.

This is not a light read, but if you are looking for something deep and different, I highly recommend this book. It will stay with you long after you have finished it, and I can guarantee you will find yourself thinking back on it on more than one occasion.

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