Book review: “Tam Lin” by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 14+

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The author of the Secret Country trilogy, when asked to contribute a volume to a series of fairy-tale novelizations, delved instead into a traditional Scots ballad about a girl named Janet who saves her lover from being sacrificed to the powers of Hell by the Queen of Faerie. Transferring the setting to the campus of a small midwestern college in the 1970s, she weaves this eerie storyline into a tale of ghosts, time travelers, young people discovering love and friendship, and the magic of literature, especially English and ancient Greek.

The Tam Lin of the original ballad becomes, in this book, a college kid named Thomas Lane who, surprisingly for the title character, doesn’t show his handsome face until a half-dozen chapters in, and then only to say something rude to Janet Carter and disappear in a huff. Gradually he becomes part of her circle of friends and their significant others, though the two of them do not become an item until their fourth year at Blackstock—nearer the end of the book than one would expect. By then events are moving very quickly, the way those golden college days do after a certain point. By the time Janet realizes her danger and Thomas’s, she has only hours to make up her mind what to do. It’s a “do I keep the baby” decision at one level, and on another a decision whether to defy an alien being who has strange and terrible powers, and a vindictive streak with it. All on a cold Hallowe’en night, Janet has to decide—and Thomas’s fate is in her hands.

Reading this book is a very immersive experience. At times it seems to move very slowly, though it gathers momentum until time seems to be getting away from you faster than you would like. The scenery and characters are amazingly vivid and life-like, though some of them speak rather oddly—for reasons you might guess before Janet does. Alumni of Minnesota’s Carleton College might find the fictitious Blackstock strangely familiar. Anyone who has struggled through tough college courses and the fortunes and misfortunes of dormitory life, planning a class schedule, and balancing the pressures of pursuing a degree against enjoying a beautiful and never-to-be-repeated time of life, will feel a tug of nostalgia while reading this book. And, of course, the drama of quarrels with friends, the rocky start of a love life, the pleasure and pain of forming new relationships and growing away from old ones, and growing doubts about one’s long-held beliefs (or unbeliefs)—all that is in here, along with sly undercurrents of danger, mystery, and magic.

To a certain extent, an Adult Content Advisory also needs to be in here. The college students in this book get busy in more than one sense. Though their adult business is never graphically depicted, it involves frank discussion of birth control, feminine health, and abortion. And though the Girl Power aspects of the original ballad are certainly included in the story, girl vulnerabilities—including the risk of suicide—are also presented. But this is not to say that kids younger than the main characters in this book shouldn’t read it. For this book is also a good advertisement for enjoying a richer life by taking huge doses of books, plays, and poems—especially really good ones—and starting the habit early. This book makes many recommendations along these lines, including works that I can personally vouch for, some I wish I had discovered at a younger age, and even some I have yet to read. A value of having this book to re-read, or at least to use as a reference, is its rich literary background, pointing the reader both to new pathways to explore, and old ones to visit again with new eyes.

Besides this book and the trilogy mentioned above, Pamela Dean’s novels also include The Dubious Hills and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. This is not the first time I have felt the effects of this author’s ability to draw one wholly into a compelling and attractive fantasy world. I am now more interested than ever in reading more of her stuff—perhaps after I read more of the stuff on Janet Carter’s reading list.

This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!
This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!