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The Wild Swans
Peg Kerr
Warner Aspect Books, 392 pages


J.J. Palencar
The Wild Swans
Peg Kerr
Peg Kerr was born in a Chicago suburb and moved to Minnesota in attend St. Olaf College. With $50 from her first paycheck, she registered for a science fiction and fantasy writing class. There, she met her husband and wrote the first story she ever sold. She attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 1988 and has an M.A. in English Literature, specializing in speculative fiction. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and various other magazines and anthologies. Emerald House Rising was her first novel. The Wild Swans is her second. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two daughters.

Peg Kerr Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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Reviewer's Note: Two reviews of Peg Kerr's The Wild Swans are provided. The first is for those "Web Surfers" who generally skim these reviews to get a quick sense of whether there's anything of interest to them before they click somewhere else. If that describes you, just go to Review #1. The second is for those people from Missouri who require a little more information.

Review #1:

BUY THIS BOOK. Stop whatever else you are doing, take off from work, skip school, don't worry about whether the lawn needs to be cut, lock the door and don't let anyone in. As soon as you can, immediately if not sooner, read The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr.

This is a wonderful book. Trust me.

Review #2:

So maybe you don't trust me. That's okay, I'm not offended. And, no, I'm not related to Peg Kerr. I'm just immensely impressed with the skillfulness with which this novel is constructed, subtly linking two seemingly disparate narratives that are recounted in alternating chapters. Although both are love stories, one is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story that gives the novel its title, while the other is a depiction of 80s New York City gay culture on the eve of the AIDS epidemic. Though one is grounded in fantasy and the other in realism, both are also fairy tales, featuring banished characters who are redeemed (and, in the process, redeem others) through strenuous trials of their courage and faith. And in keeping with that tradition, as opposed to the contemporary "Disneyfication" that has watered down the psychological depths of fairy tales into marketing excuses for bland soundtracks and pricey stuffed dolls, bittersweet insight into the human condition provides a more satisfying conclusion than happily-ever-after.

The novel opens with Elias Latham, a young man forced to live on the streets after being disowned by his homophobic parents, haplessly attempting to prostitute himself to get money to eat. Fortuitously, he is taken in by Sean, a street musician and former seminarian who helps Elias gain back his self-respect. Eventually, Sean becomes Elias's first -- and only -- lover. Although Sean attempts to introduce him to anonymous bathhouse sex, Elias is never comfortable with the lifestyle and prefers to remain in a monogamous relationship with Sean, even if it isn't mutual. Ironically and tragically, through his partner Elias ultimately becomes a victim of the then unknowing consequences of, as one character puts it, "[Men] just doing each other. Making each other feel good."

Without sentimentalizing or romanticizing AIDS, Kerr portrays Sean's ordeal in dying from the virus just as it is beginning to decimate the gay community. The physical and emotional transformations wreaked by the disease become the vessel by which Sean and Elias fully discover and affirm their love for one another, even in the face of their mutual death sentences.

The reflecting story is that of Eliza Grey, banished from her father's estate thanks to the manipulations of an evil stepmother (what else?). Eliza seeks to break the spell that turns her 11 brothers into swans during the day, though they revert to human form at night. (Swans are a mythological metaphor for spiritual transcendence; birds in general typically represent ethereal messengers, angels, or the soul itself.) Holding Eliza beneath them in a net, together the swans fly from England to the New World in search of safe haven.

Shortly after they arrive in Puritan New England, Eliza has a dream in which she is instructed to weave 11 coats of nettles that, when put on each of the swans, will break the spell and return them permanently to human form. She must not attempt to protect her hands from the piercing sting of the nettles as she works them into the garments, nor may she speak, as this will immediately destroy her brothers.

Just when Eliza has begun her silent task, she is separated from her brothers and taken in by a religious community. Jonathan, a magistrate, falls in love with Eliza, despite the strangely mysterious circumstances of her origin and muteness. Eliza, equally smitten, assents to Jonathan's marriage proposal, but secretly continues her bizarre weaving, which once discovered results in accusations of witchcraft. Eliza is condemned, unable to speak in her own defense for fear of harming her brothers. Equally distressing is that Jonathan, despite his efforts to protect her, believes her guilty. Eliza's only hope of salvation -- for her and her brothers -- is to complete the remaining coat before her execution and to break the enchantment.

In addition to the attention to detail that authentically evokes both early colonial America and contemporary gay culture, one of Kerr's storytelling strengths is how small unfolding events cleverly link the two narratives. An example is the offering a strawberry that serves as a sort of "fruit of knowledge" -- in Eliza's case it points to the discovery of her brothers, while for Elias it leads to a fuller realization of his sexuality. Another is when Elias and Sean attend a performance of the Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an actual ballet troupe in which cross-dressing males play the ballerina parts in, you guessed it, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

It is interesting to note that the only male characters who ultimately don't betray their loved ones are homosexuals. Fathers banish their children, a husband fails to stand by his wife, but even in the horrifying arms of a wasting disease, the commitment of Elias and Sean to one another deepens and in a way survives death. Indeed, for all the period detail Kerr gets right about 17th century practices, her sensitivity to portraying the gay lifestyle is particularly poignant, perhaps even more so considering that Kerr, as a married mother of two, presumably is not speaking from personal experience. I remember hearing an interview with rocker Tom Robinson, whose anthem "Glad to be Gay" became a rallying cry of the emerging gay activism of the period Kerr writes about. Robinson is now married to a woman and has become a father. Asked to explain the apparent contradiction, Robinson said that discovering a person you love transcends gender, something Kerr obviously understands.

In the end, neither tale would fully work without the other. That Kerr manages to successfully blend fantasy with "straight" storytelling makes her achievement all the more remarkable.

The only thing that really irritates me about this novel is something Kerr has no control over. Salman Rushdie, Steve Erickson, and Kurt Andersen -- to name just a few so-called mainstream authors -- use SF/fantasy motifs in recent works that have been generally well received and publicized, and presumably will achieve a wide readership. Although the level of Kerr's craftsmanship is as equally deserving of attention as these other authors, The Wild Swans doesn't get the same press coverage and most likely will get tucked away in the fantasy aisle, and that's only in the megastores that have the shelf space.

But I think Kerr already knows that life is often unfair.

You can do your part to rectify this injustice, however. Go back and read Review #1 and follow its instructions. Tell your friends. Buy the book for graduation gifts, birthdays, Christmas presents. Give it to people who ordinarily don't read. Insist that your local bookseller carry a copy. Hand it out on the streets.

In the event I haven't made myself clear, let me put it another way:
DO YOURSELF A FAVOUR. READ THIS BOOK.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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