Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Published: 2002, HarperTeen (Originally 1985)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Retelling
Source: Library book
The main issue I had with this story is how misleading the promotional blurb is. Based on the synopsis provided, I expected a story that really focused on the mystery surrounding Polly's memories. How did this happen to Polly? What will she do about it, now that she knows that for the past four/five years she and everyone around her has erased the true past and gone on believing a lie? It's a really interesting premise, and I expected Jones to go more in depth with philosophical and big questions.
The plot, however, is pretty simple and while reading it I tended to forget that Polly was reliving "forgotten" memories. As she is packing for a second year of college, nineteen-year-old Polly notices a photograph of burning bales of hay, entitled "Fire and Hemlock," in her room at her grandmother's house. It is this photograph that causes Polly to start remembering how she received that photograph, among with other things she shouldn't remember, things that have been buried in her memory for years now. This story of an older teenage Polly reliving her memories provides a frame narrative. Inside the frame narrative, a story about a younger Polly and the relationship she forms with the cellist Thomas Lynn unfolds. It is in the memories of Polly's childhood where at least three-fourths of the novel takes place. While the story of Polly's childhood and relationship with Thomas is whimsical and touching, I also found it to be slow-moving at times.
The clear division between the past and the present also made me wish for at least some understanding of those years where Polly and everyone around her lived their lives oblivious of the true past. It would have better helped me bridge together the two stories of the novel.
Protagonist Polly Whittacker is a difficult character to like. She's prickly, closed-off, and adamantly refuses to abide by any set of conventions (more, it seems, for the sake of being different than because she actually has any strict set of principles). Yet it is not difficult to sympathize with Polly: with her parents' divorce she becomes an unwanted guest in two new households, she does not really know what she wants with her life, nor does she have many mentors or guides. In a way, the story is more about Polly's coming of age than it is about retelling the ballad of "Tam Lin." Polly's evolution into a more confident young adult is wonderful to witness.
I am conflicted about the relationship that gradually develops between Polly and Thomas. In no way does Jones or the book itself suggest that there is anything improper or sexual at work. In fact, Thomas becomes one of the few people that Polly can really trust and confide in. He sees her not as a nuisance or a child, but as an individual whose opinion should be valued. It is through her friendship with Thomas and their Let's Pretend games that Polly is able to find a sense of confidence and purpose in herself. I really loved reading all the details that the two of them put into their heroic alter-egos, Tan Coul and Hero. Their relationship is touching, poignant, and incredibly well-developed. Both of them are lost souls whose relationship to the other provides direction and purpose in their lives.
Through her representations of Polly and Thomas as Janet and Tam Lin, Jones is able to depict a well-developed and complex relationship. The Janet and Tam Lin of this story really get to know each other well and there's no insta-love here. Not only is it not surprising that Polly is willing to risk the anger of the fairy folk to save Thomas, but as I reader I had expected it, because, really, it made complete sense. Those are some powerful fairies, that can manipulate time and the memories of so many people! I really liked how Jones distinguished the fairy folk from the humans by having them all be part of the same family. Because Polly did not truly understand their power as a child, however, I feel like some of the magic and mysticism that they possessed was not portrayed super strongly.
Why, then, did I have issues with Polly and Thomas' relationship? Because I knew that at some point Fire and Hemlock would begin to mirror the "Tam Lin" tale more, meaning that I expected a romantic relationship to form between Polly and Thomas. Fortunately that does not happen within the novel, although there are hints of a future relationship at the end of the book, when young adult Polly is reunited with Thomas. The blurb, misleading as it is, does refer to Polly needing to solve the mystery of her memories for her true love's sake, and it's not any stretch of the imagination to realize that Thomas is the only character who could fulfill that role. I don't think that I personally will ever find an initial child-adult friendship that turns into a romance acceptable.
The entire final sequence of "Tam Lin," where Janet must rescue Tam Lin from the fairies, felt a little rushed and not entirely realistic within the context of the novel itself. Polly has just made some startling revelations about her memories and her life and then, for a book that up until this point has had very little action, it becomes incredibly action-packed. I had a difficult time really understanding what is going on at the ending.
Although I have mostly focused on issues I had with Fire and Hemlock, I did not consider it a bad book by any means. It is a little slow at times and not quite the story I was led to expect, but it will certainly appeal to many fantasy fans. Reading it as a "Tam Lin" retelling is really where the challenge laid with me. I do have Howl's Moving Castle already loaded on my Kindle, so I'm hoping (and expecting) to enjoy that novel much more than Fire and Hemlock.