In general, I hate books about ghosts. After zombies, they are my least favorite paranormals. Why? No reason: same as why I hate clowns. But for Tom McNeal, author of To Be Sung Underwater (see my review, here), I would make any exception, because he is just a darned good storyteller, no matter what the subject or genre and recommended reading age group.
This story is a fairytale that features the ghost of one of the masters of fairytales, Jacob Grimm. Jacob is dead, but stuck in the Zwischenraum — the space between — where some troubled souls reside because of some unmet desire. Jacob doesn’t know what that is, but understands he must discover it before he can move on to the afterlife. In the meantime, he becomes the companion of one of the Exceptionals – a small number of mortals who can sense the presence of these ghosts. The Exceptional he befriends is 15-year-old Jeremy Johnson Johnson. [Jeremy’s mother and father both had the same last name.]
Jeremy lives alone with his father, who turned into an uncommunicative recluse after Jeremy’s mother abandoned them. Now, they are being threatened with eviction. Jeremy’s friend Ginny devises a plan for Jeremy to get on a trivia quiz show so he can win enough money to pay for their house. Jeremy, as it happens, is an expert on The Brothers Grimm, especially with Jacob there to feed him the answers in his head.
But Jeremy has another very big problem besides the possibility of losing his house. Jacob has told him that he learned in the Zwischenraum that there is a “Finder of Occasions” who lies in wait to do harm, and from whom Jeremy needs protection. This is another mystery for Jacob however; he has no idea who this Finder of Occasions is, and how, being incorporeal, he could protect Jeremy when the time comes.
As with the original Grimm fairytales, this story turns very dark, and Jeremy, Ginger, another friend, Frank Baily, are placed in mortal danger by a character who, to employ a fairytale analogy, may appear to be like a friendly grandmother, but in actuality is a wolf in disguise. And this wolf is, additionally, a very modern and relevant threat to young people. Jacob can only save them by finding out why he is in the Zwischenraum, but there is a very real possibility he won’t be able to do so in time, if at all.
Discussion: Far Far Away is a coming of age story with a creative twist, featuring humor as well as suspense and scariness. Jacob’s musings as Jeremy’s surrogate father and tutor are at turns funny and warm and thought-provoking. Jacob is forever after Jeremy to study, and to stop paying attention to girls. He has the usual frustrations with teens that fathers and teachers everywhere experience:
“‘Are you well, Jeremy?’
‘Am I well’?…Why can’t you just talk like everyone else? Why can’t you just say, ‘How you doin’? You doin’ good?’
‘Very well, then’, I said. ‘I look forward to the day when every schoolchild will read Shakespeare’s great comedic play All’s Good That Ends Good.’”
And when Jeremy and the other children are in danger, Jacob, who spent his life collecting fairytales, struggles with the idea that evil could prevail:
“…why not mercy and justice to a sweet youth from an omnipotent and benevolent Creator? There are only three answers. He is not omnipotent, or he is not benevolent, or – the dreariest possibility of all – he is inattentive.”
Evaluation: Fans of fairytales will appreciate this meta mélange of fairytale content, construction, and style. The coming-of-age tale parts of the story are tender and sweet, and the parenting aspect will amuse readers with its familiar mix of affection and frustration.
Note: This book was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2013