Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geralidine McCaughrean, illustrations by Scott M Fischer, 310 pp RL 4
From an adult perspective, JM Barrie's Peter Pan is a bittersweet story. From a child's viewpoint, it must be a playful adventure. The final chapter, "When Wendy Grew Up," (which was actually an epilogue written four years after the debut of the play and performed only once in Barrie's lifetime, per his instructions) finds an adult Wendy in the nursery with her daughter and Peter crying bitterly when he realizes she has grown up. However, Peter soon decides that Wendy's daughter Jane will do just as well for a mother and Spring cleaning on Neverland and they fly out the window together. When Jane is grown Peter returns for Jane's daughter, Margaret. The final line of the book reads, "When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter's mother in turn; and so it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." At first, the word "heartless" confused me. But, after more thought I think Barrie is referring to the heartlessness that is the self-protective, selfcenteredness of children. It is heartlessness that allows Wendy to fly out the nursery window without a thought to how it will grieve her parents and Nana and the same heartlessness that allows Jane in turn to fly away. It is heartlessness that allows Peter to take Jane in Wendy's place with only a moment's thought. I suppose this is the same heartlessness that prompts a child to refuse to give a hug or a kiss when asked or run off to a play date at a friend's house without a backward glance. Without this heartlessness they would never be able to grow the wings they need to venture out in the world and develop a sense of independence and competency to survive as an adult. To compliment and support these wings, we, as parents instinctually give our children a foundation, a safe haven, the roots they need to successfully grow their wings and fly. I think that it is the tension between these two worlds, between the Nursery and Neverland, that lends Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Scarlet their sometimes somber tones.
Because of this somber tone, it would seem an impossibility to start a sequel to Peter Pan, authorized or otherwise, without the presence of tension and possibly even danger. Even Disney's animated sequel Return to Neverland begins in World War II London with Jane rushing home through devastated streets during an air raid. Peter Pan in Scarlet is the result of a 2004 contest launched by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, holders of the copyright to Peter Pan, left to them by JM Barrie, to find a writer to create a sequel. The winner, award winning British children's author Geraldine McCaughrean, captures the tone and spirit of Barrie's original (without the densely written, dated, digressions) wonderfully. True to the bittersweet nature of the original, the Neverland of Peter Pan in Scarlet has somehow progressed from a permanent state of Spring, of green shoots, flowers and renewal, to Autumn, a time of fading colors and hibernation. This change does not go unnoticed by the now grown Wendy and the Lost Boys. Nightly, they dream vividly of Neverland to awaken each morning with tangible remnants of these dreams in their beds. As McCaughrean writes, "The wardrobe was piled high with the dregs of dreams - an alarm clock, an Indian head-dress, and eye-patch, a pirate's tricorn hat." The group reassembles, minus Michael, who went away to the Big War and was Lost (a nod to Michael Llewelyn Daives, inspiration for the character of Peter Pan who died at the age of twenty in 1921), and decides that a return trip to Neverland is in order in the hopes of sorting things out. Mrs Wendy, being the most sensible and organized, instructs the Lost Boys in the capture of a fairy so that they can fly back to Neverland as well as how to return to their child-selves so that they are light enough to fly.
The imaginative way that McCaughrean describes this task is perfect and includes a return to Kensington Park, encounters with disgruntled nannies and the birth, from the first laugh of a baby, of the magnificent fairy Fireflyer. Somehow, Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be full of more creations and characters than the original, and these creations and characters seem to be more fully realized and described in more detail. Fireflyer is an obnoxious, self-centered, redheaded fairy who is constantly hungry and eats everything from buttons to scones to earwax. He is also a world-class liar and becomes immediately devoted to Slightly (so named in the original because his mother had pinned a note saying, "slightly soiled" to his pinafore, half of which was missing by the time he made it to the shores of Neverland) when he proclaims, "And I say that, for a very small person, you tell extraordinarily big lies." This flatters Fireflyer to no end. With Fireflyer and fairy dust in hand, Wendy instructs the Lost Boys to return to their youthful sizes by stealing clothes from their children and wearing them. Tootles, who has only daughters, is forced to wear little girls clothes and returns to Neverland as a girl, which adds a bit of flavor to the story. When Curly goes to grab his son's rugby shirt the puppy takes hold of the other end and winds up travelling to Neverland in Curly's pocket. Nibs, watching the sleeping faces of his children, decides he cannot imagine going anywhere without them and forgoes the journey altogether. In yet another brilliant burst of imagination, McCaughrean solves the problem of children's clothes for Slightly, a widowed, childless, clarinet player who performs in nightclubs, in this way. When he catches up with the group he jubilantly explains, "I went down to the foot of the bed, you see! Haven't done it for twenty years! Right down to the end and beyond! I remembered, you see! You can end up anywhere if you dare to go down right to the bottom!" It was a treat to be taken back to that time when I was small enough to crawl down to the foot of the bed.
The children find Neverland "totally and completely and utterly and absolutely . . . changed." The greens are now reds and browns. The sunlight is now paler and thinner, the shadows longer. They find themselves shut out of the Wendy House, much the same way Peter found the windows to his nursery shut when he tried to return home. They agree, the only thing that would ever cause anyone to shut the windows is the fog. "You know how dangerous a London fog can be to the lungs," Wendy notes. When Peter will not answer the door and Fireflyer cannot rouse him the Lost Boys wrench off one of the walls to find Peter with a ferocious scowl, sword drawn and ready to fight. "Is that any way to greet your old friends?" Wendy asks. "I have no friends who are old!" Peter retorts. Once things are sorted out, imaginations set in motion, and original reason for returning to Neverland completely forgotten in the way children will, the League of Pan decides to go on a quest to find Tootle's "heart's desire and fight deadly foe" and, as Tootle's suggests, win her hand. But, as Neverland has changed, the group does not explore through familiar land but instead finds themselves at the doors of a traveling circus run by the Ravello, the ravelling man. Mysterious, manipluative, fawning and a little bit creepy, Ravello, who seems to be clothed in or possibly composed of wooly layers that are constantly unraveling, insinuates himself into the League of Pan, serving as Peter's valet, as they plunder the crew-less Jolly Roger and prepare to hunt to treasure.
When the Jolly Roger sinks, the explorers land on Grief Reef, right at the opening to the Maze of Witches. Ravello, who is already on shore waiting for them, along with a mysterious sea chest that has the letters J.H. on the lid, explains the geography of the landscape as such,
"These mildewed and rusting hulks you see before you are all that remain of a hundred sad stories. These are the perambulators and baby carriages once pushed up and down parks and lanes and city streets by nursery maids in charge of baby boys. These are the prams those nursemaids parked up under shady trees while they dozed; or left unattended while they nipped into the post office to buy a stamp; or to flirt with their sweethearts. These are the prams that got out of control because the brake was left off, and ran away down steep hills. In short, these are the prams boys tumbled out of, never to be seen again. These are the prams that turned baby boys into Lost Boys, and started them on their long journey to Neverland."
The prams that litter the shores were rebuilt into boats by desperate nursemaids determined to search for the babies they lost. Upon mistakenly entering the Maze of Witches, the children find themselves surrounded by voices calling out, "Henry! George! Ignatius! Jack!," all in search of their lost wards. Ravello tells them that they have turned into witches and magicked their way into Neverland where they lay in wait, hoping to catch a child to roast and eat. The true identity of the witches and their reason for being in Neverland is even more satisfyingly rewarding than the thought of the Lost Boys being adopted by Mr and Mrs Darling at the end of Peter Pan, however this isn't revealed until the end of the book.
Their travels take them from the Never Wood, through Nowhereland, across Thirsty Desert and to the base of Never Mountain where they expect to find their treasure buried in snow atop Neverpeak. On their way they are set upon by factions of warring fairies and threatened by the presence of the Roarers, boy's Peter has culled from his tribe when they have upset him or begun to grow old. As the journey wears on, Peter who, at the urging and grooming of Ravello has taked to wearing Captain Hook's second best coat, begins to look and act more and more like Hook. When they finally reach Neverpeak and Peter opens the treasure chest, filled with al the explorers, including Puppy's, various hearts' desires, there are more revelations to be made. One of the best is the return of Tinker Bell, who turns out to be Fireflyer's heart's desire. And, the specter of Captain Hook, which haunts the story almost from the start, finally takes shape. and the reason for the poisoning of Neverland that caused the decline from Spring to Autumn is discovered, all tying in nicely with threads from Peter Pan. Finally, the children, some of whom have returned to their adult selves, return home to London with some very important additional passengers in the remarkable Dirty Duck, a raft like contraption built from lashing together some of the many prams that litter Grief Reef.
Whereas Peter Pan is a story populated with children, the adults, except Captain Hook, of course, playing peripheral roles, Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be a story filled with adults. Like Peter Pan, their presence bookends the story, but in Peter Pan in Scarlet they seem to seep onto the pages from every corner nonetheless. They are the nursemaid-witches on Grief Reef, Ravello and even Smee makes a jolly and welcomed return at the end of story. And, of course, there are the adult Lost Children and Wendy and the spouses and families they have left behind in their efforts to heal Neverland. Where the central image of Peter Pan is the children, the heartless children, flying away from their home, the central image of Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to be that of adults reaching out to children, adults with memories and grief, the kind that don't weight down (fortunate) children. As Ravello says to the children after cutting off their shadows so as to make scaling the mountain easier, "in the unlikely event you live long enough, they will re-grow. With every grief that befalls a man, his shadow increases. Have you not seen how I trail behind me a shadow like a leak from the Quink factory? But then you have not heard my sad story, have you? Oh, you should, you should! I know how you children love stories!" I think, though, children, the turn-of-the-century children the original Peter Pan was written for, anyway, love stories with adventure and villains and heroes drawn with obvious black and white lines and no shades of gray. In a reflection of the times we live in, as well as the impact JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series with its blurring of lines between good and bad, hero and villain, McCuaghrean's story takes us to a poisoned world in decline where the battle to victory and defeat of evil is not simple a simple, clear cut one. McCaughrean's Neverland is world that has had the fabric of its existence breached by the guns and bombs of real wars. But, McCaughrean ends her book on a hopeful note, writing,
"You know how bruises fade? Black to purple, then greenish blue, and, last of all, yellow? Well Neverland healed up just like that. The snow melted and watered he Thirsty Desert. The springs welled up and refilled the rivers. Burnt Neverwood re-grew. Finally the yellow sun came out and lingered-sometimes for days on end, because it was enjoying itself too much to go to bed. The Lagoon shimmered with fish and sunlight and mermaids. Villains moored up. Lost Boys and Girls found their way to Fort Pan. Mothers came looking for them (of course)... Hand in hand, Tinker Bell and Fireflyer quarrelled their way here, there, and everywhere in Neverland, inventing new colours, playing Chinese chequers with the stars, and nibbling the knees out of WEdnesday to make it easier to spell.... As for Pan, it took an age for his shadow to grow back, because he was rarely so sad. Only when he thought of Wendy and the others did a little more darkness flap out behind him - a leg, a narrow waist, a sword-arm..."
McCaughrean proves from start to finish that she is adept as Barrie at crafting metaphors and spinning magic. No one could ever write a mirror-image sequel to Peter Pan - times have changed and the tenor would not ring true. Despite this, Peter Pan in Scarlet captures the essence of JM Barrie's classic a weaves it into something similar but new and marvelous to behold.