If you have a child who dreams of dancing, you've seen "The Nutcracker" enough times to know that you can't leave until Clara finally wakes up — and you do, too.
During the years when my younger daughter studied at Boston Ballet, she was sometimes a mouse, sometimes a soldier, always adorable. But the tickets were about $80 apiece, and there were grandparents and other relatives who wanted in on this cherished holiday performance, which meant that the Stahlbaums' opulence depended, at least in part, on my impoverishment.
I'm not complaining. That gorgeous Russian score wound around E.T.A. Hoffmann's surreal story produced one of the world's most eidetic tales. Every time I hear Tchaikovsky's music — even the tortured pop versions at the mall — visions of sugar plums still dance in my head.
Which made me excited to read "Hiddensee," Gregory Maguire's new novel about "a once and future Nutcracker." Maguire would seem the perfect author for this act of creative investigation. He's already delved into the early lives of such fantastical figures as Snow White and Cinderella. And, of course, his novel about the Wicked Witch of the West is the basis for that spellbinding Broadway hit "Wicked."
But there's barely a nutshell of music or magic in "Hiddensee." Maguire has a style glazed with a patina of Old World formality. Don't look for the passion and color of Tchaikovsky here; this is a novel with its own palette of darker, woodland tones.
In Bavaria around 1808, a foundling boy named Dirk lives with an old woman and an old woodcutter. When a falling tree knocks Dirk out, he experiences a vision of a talking bird, a gnome and a very aggrieved spirit of the forest. Returning to life and believing that his guardians will again try to kill him, Dirk runs away from home into the wide world he knows nothing about. "How many times," he wonders, "will I lie down in a darkness whose character I cannot imagine, to see what daybreak reveals of my new circumstances?" Many times.
Dirk is a "bit of a dolt," Maguire writes, but not usually the funny kind. Although he's literal and serious, he's no rube, nor is he a naive standard of moral innocence like Mark Twain's Huck Finn. As Dirk wanders around Germany with a patch over one eye — the result of that accident in the forest — he views everyone from a distance. He can be an oversensitive prig. "I have no talents," he says honestly, "I only watch and listen." Something about his upbringing with those two loveless guardians has cauterized his affections. Even his rare flutterings of lust and romance are tightly constrained, largely unexpressed — one might say, almost wooden.
But despite some early allusions, Dirk is not the Nutcracker himself, which may be what sets this novel on its pedestrian trajectory. The moment a village pastor names our hero "Drosselmeier," the pixie dust falls from the pages, and it's clear that this is the story of a future toymaker, not the tale of a magical soldier who will battle the Mouse King around Clara's Christmas tree.
And yet — like Dirk — the novel feels suspended between realism and fantasy. "You're an oddity among young men," says one of the many people who struggle to get close to him. "Does anyone know much about you?" No, not even we do, though we follow Dirk from one village to another. That structure allows Maguire to sprinkle the plot with references to 19th-century characters, all of whom seem more vivacious than our one-eyed hero. (An extended encounter with the hypnotist Franz Mesmer provides the novel's best set piece.)
But this remains very much a study of a man who left the forest of fairy tales and never fully joined the world of getting and spending. Dirk doesn't really belong anywhere, a condition that eventually causes him a certain amount of tightly repressed anguish. Maguire explores this theme most sensitively over Dirk's long friendship with a gay musician. For different reasons, neither of these young men can freely express what he's feeling, but even the closeted gay man finds more happiness than Dirk, whose passions are channeled into carving wooden toys. We come to know the dimensions of his longing, but we never really know the content of his desire.
That mystery must be the point of this unhurried story, which eventually meshes with the details of Petipa and Ivanov's ballet. Maguire suggests that we all pine for some vaguely recalled but tantalizing moment from childhood. "Surely you have such a walnut in your own life," he writes, "something that holds the key to all your past ease and safety." Dirk's winding journey finally brings him close to that lost paradise, but not in any way you'd expect.
After all, the past is a tough nut to crack.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Gregory Maguire
William Morrow. 304 pp. $26.99