Author: Nancy Werlin
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Publication Date: 2008
Purchase Price: $9.99 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: A great example of music inspiring a story
Aldous Huxley (the author of Brave New World) is quoted as saying, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” And while I’m a great fan of novels, poems, soliloquies, and well-worded snark…I’m also a great believer in the power of music.
Music is amazing. It is like water, or wind: it finds the cracks in our hearts and souls and flows into them, washing away stress or fear or pain. Music can give the listener goosebumps; can help us learn; can help us laugh. Another wonderful thing about music is that a song can tell a story within the space of two to three minutes — and one of the singers who was best at this was Marty Robbins.
But it is not only the singer/songwriter who can be a storyteller; sometimes a song inspires a totally different story than the one it was supposed to tell. This is what happened with this week’s book, Impossible.
Back in 1997, Nancy Werlin had the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” stuck in her head. That song had been popularized 30 years before, and as a child, Werlin thought it to be very romantic. It was only as she grew older that she began to pay more attention to the meaning behind the lyrics: “The man, singing, demands one impossible task after another from the woman, and if she doesn’t deliver, then she’s no ‘true love’ of his.” After mulling this over, Werlin could come to only one conclusion: “He hates her.”
But why? What could she have done to him to make him hate her so? Werlin knew there was a story there somewhere, waiting to be told, but simply couldn’t fit the pieces together. It was only after several conversations (one in 1998 and another in 2006) with a writer friend that Werlin was able to nurture her idea into a complete story.
A Little History
Simon and Garfunkel did not create “Scarborough Fair,” although they were the first to popularize it via such mediums as radio, television, and records. The concept, however, is much older. The oldest known version of the ballad dates back to 1600-1650. It is Scottish in origin, and is known as a “Child Ballad,” one of the 305 ballads collected and published by Francis Child between 1882 and 1898.
Although there have been many different versions of this ballad throughout history, the basic premise remains the same: the singer (a young man) tells the listener to ask his former love to perform various and sundry impossible tasks (such as making a seamless shirt), implying that if she completes them, he will take her back. In a variation that I really like, the song could be sung as a duet, with the woman singing back her own list of impossible tasks for him to perform — with a promise to give him his seamless shirt once he has finished (she’s a smart ass, perfect!)
One interesting fact: the line “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” is said to be an allusion to the pagan belief that these four things combined would create a powerful love charm. Something to try next time you’re cooking rosemary chicken?
Back to 2006…
All this information was well and good, but Werlin was still missing one crucial element: tension. Taking the tale and setting it in modern times would not really be a story per se–who would want to read a book-length re-hashing of a centuries-old ballad when they could just listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s song on their ipod? No…what Werlin need was a bad guy. But there really isn’t an antagonist in “Scarborough Fair.” Sure, the male singer is a bit of a jerk, trying to get his ex- to do a bunch of weird stuff…but jerkiness does not a villain make. It seemed that Werlin was stuck again–until she stumbled upon one single paragraph:
“This ballad first appeared as ‘A proper new ballad entitled The Wind hath blown my Plaid away, or A Discourse betwixt a young Woman and the Elfin Knight.’ This was a black-letter ballad (broadside) that was printed circa 1670. In later variants the Elfin Knight is replaced by the devil.” [emphasis mine]
Thus, Impossible was born.
Lucy Scarborough is a normal seventeen year-old girl. Well, almost. Her parents, Leo and Soledad, are her adoptive parents; her birth mother, Miranda, is a crazy bag lady. Miranda gave birth to Lucy when she was seventeen years old, and then promptly went insane; she reappears in Lucy’s life occasionally, always singing a strange version of “Scarborough Fair.”
Lucy’s childhood friend Zach Greenfield is home for the summer, and is home in time to see Lucy off to her first Prom with her date, a skinny “band geek” named Gray Spencer. Everyone is for some reason a bit on edge, and the presence of Padraig, Soledad’s new co-worker, isn’t helping. Then as the last photos are being taken on the front lawn, Miranda appears and begins throwing bottles at the group. The neighbors call the police, and as the woman is being led away, she tells Lucy: “I’ve been trying and trying to tell you. Pay attention to the song. It’s your turn. You’ve been warned. I’m supposed to warn you. You’re allowed to try to escape. You have to try, in fact. None of us have ever managed it, though. Will you be any different?” (p. 59)
It is only several weeks later, when she is pregnant at seventeen, and has found Miranda’s diary, that Lucy begins to understand her birth mother’s words. The women of her family are cursed. They each give birth at seventeen, and after they are unable to complete the impossible tasks, they belong to the Elfin Knight who cursed their ancestress Fenella long ago. It is only through completing the tasks that Lucy will be able to save herself and her descendents from a terrible fate.
Lucy’s biggest help (incredibly, sappily, and wonderfully) is her true love: Zach Greenfield. Because the Elfin Knight has always been able to choose (and subsequently destroy) his “true love’s” attacker, the Scarborough girls have always been left alone. But this time the Elfin Knight is careless in his arrogance, and Lucy and Zach are able to overpower him together. As Fenella says, when the curse is finally broken, “The task required two, working together, trusting each other. It required the ‘us,’ not the ‘I.’ For that is true love, is it not’ ” (p. 357)?
It is my reaction to such things that leads me to believe that I am a hopeless romantic. While a whole lot of research shows that “true love” is most likely a simple case of two sets of DNA recognizing their compatibility, I find it reassuring that many of our novels still set forth as true the idea that true love is real, and is about trust and belief and hope and power.
I’ve been reluctant to wander the “Young Adult” section at bookstores recently, mainly because ever since Meyer’s Twilight series, it’s been nothing but vampires, vampires, vampires. And although a good vampire book hits the spot now and then, it’s rather annoying to be inundated with the same drivel no matter where one looks.
However, this book is more than Young Adult — it is definitely written for a more juvenile audience, but it is still a novel that can be enjoyed by almost any age group.
It’s an easy read, but it will do the reader good to slow down and pay extra attention — Werlin is very good at slipping in small tidbits that don’t register as part of the plot until later. Next time you’re at the bookstore, grab Impossible before everyone else does.
” ‘Music links us humans, heart to heart,’ he had said. ‘Across time and space, and life and death.’ ” (pp. 27-28)
“As she read, Lucy became aware that the diary was not only a chronicle of Miranda’s pregnancy. It was also a chronicle of Miranda going crazy. Inch by inch. And in reading it, Lucy was witnessing the whole thing.” (p. 103)
Have you ever heard a song that inspired you to write, or whispered to you of a story waiting to be told? Tell me about it.