Reviewing ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

This is another George MacDonald. Also another Scottish Jesus, though more like Working-Class London Jesus, and surprisingly, it’s so much better done than in The Marquis of Lossie. The reason? Scottish Jesus is a little boy named Diamond in this one. He’s diabetes-inducingly sweet and perfect in attitude, but most of his skills are in taking care of babies and learning how to drive and take care of his father’s coach horse. Maybe given enough time, he could have turned into Malcolm, but Diamond can’t master fierce horses or seas or hoodlums on the street. And his extemporaneous rhyming is childish and playfully silly, and that just seems more palatable to my plausibility monitor than Adult Scottish Jesus.

This one is plenty more fairy-tale-ish than Marquis, though it’s all framed as being Diamond’s dreams. We go with him with the character North Wind and see some things with him in the country at the back of North Wind, but in context to the real world, these are interpreted as dreams or fever dreams. More than one character expresses some concern that Diamond’s screws are loose. Sometimes the things that come out of his mouth are off the wall enough that readers easily sympathize with them. MacDonald tried to do this in Marquis, but it fell pretty flat because Malcolm is too perfect and overflows with CS Lewis-flavored argument and counterargument, and it feels a little bit unnatural. Don’t get me wrong, I still love CS Lewis, but it’s pretty much only in those annoyingly in-your-face apologists’ fantasies that it comes out that pat and pretty. MacDonald did a hundred times a better job than those annoying apologists, but I just can’t swallow it without chewing anymore, not even from CS Lewis.

I like how it’s handled with Diamond, because he doesn’t even care. He’s still sweet and gentle and harmless and adorable, and who can hate that? “Against such things there is no law,” and yada-yada. There is not a single chip on his shoulder, barely even ulterior ones from the author, as we got from MacDonald’s commentary on stagnant, nominal Christianity in Marquis. “Chip on the shoulder” may not be the best way to phrase that, but I hope you grok me.

The -isms from Marquis are much more toned down in this one. Not gone, but toned down. It helps that the main characters are lower class, and to counter all the sexist crap, Diamond is a big nurturer himself. He takes care of babies and horses and strangers — and his parents, as much as he can. And the story isn’t very goody-two-shoes about it, which is nice, because those robotic little bastards in most moralistic fairy tales are fake and pre-canned as hell. (You could say the same thing about most, if not all, of the American Girl series. I wasn’t into that stuff myself, but my youngest sister was. So much blorf.)

That’s a thing I keep mulling over. Diamond is pretty much just as implausible and unrealistic as those little robot bastards, but he doesn’t quite have that bloodless, uncanny-valley feel to him. And I’m not entirely sure how MacDonald did it, which is probably why I work a low-end job and am not rolling in money after dethroning Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat as the Master Manipulator of Feels. Some of it is because Diamond is just too…playful. And unself-conscious. And that’s about all the words I can put to him at the moment.

I haven’t given much detail to the plot, because this story isn’t about plot so much as it is this character of Diamond, whether in the real world or in the fairy tale world at North Wind’s back. There are some things from MacDonald that feel like cop-outs, like the Too Good For This Sinful Earth ending, but I wonder if that’s less annoying than if Diamond turned into Malcolm. Because there is only so much an idealistic character can do, especially in a real-world setting, without seeming fake or contrived.

 

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