In Dragonhaven, Robin McKinley departs from the fairy-tale mode which made her earlier novels, such as Newbery Medal winner The Hero and the Crown (1984), or her acclaimed retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978), so notable and tries something new: entering the heart, mind, and world of a modern fifteen-year-old boy. It's an interesting choice, and much like riding on the back of a giant dragon, it can leave you feeling out of sorts.
Jake, the fifteen-year-old in question, lives in a fictionalized present-day America, one in which dragons really exist and have been studied (and occasionally poached) since the 1800s. Jake's mother died two years previously, leaving things strained between him and his father, who acts as the director for the world's largest dragon preserve, Smokehill. The five-million acre (approximately 88 square miles) preserve is not only a tourist trap, attracting thousands of families and dragon enthusiasts (Jake calls them Fruit Loops) a year, but also home to a cast of eccentric park employees, most of whom have made a conscious choice to eschew modern life in favor of hanging out with the animals. Like all national parks, Smokehill is at the mercy of the government—in this case, Congress. Threats of spending cuts or park closure are constant in the lives of the Smokehill employees. In Jake's world, it is illegal to kill a dragon, but, as the creatures can grow to be over 50 feet long and breathe fire, it is also illegal to save one. On his first "Ranger" tour of the park, Jake chances across a dying dragon—the mangled body of a poacher lying nearby. On the ground are a series of little blobs that turn out to be the dragon's newborn "dragonlets." At first, all of them appear to be dead ... but guess what?
To McKinley's credit, this tale of a boy and his dragon stays well away from the Old Yeller "foundling" formula. Yes, Jake adopts the surviving dragonlet, deciding to foster it, even though he's just broken the law and the presence of a dead human means that all hell is about to break loose upon the pro-dragon community. But Dragonhaven is not a series of touching adventures followed by a bullet to the head. McKinley appears more interested in exploring parent/child themes than caving in to the expected bonding, adventure, death progression of the "foundling story" and spends more time plumbing Jake's emotional depths than setting up narrow escapes or physical threats for her protagonists. It's a choice which is the book's great virtue, and yet one which ultimately works to its detriment.
Part of the problem is Jake. McKinley makes an admirable attempt to adopt the idiosyncratic syntax of a teenage boy, peppering Jake's speech with "like"s and pop-culture references. When it works, this narrative approach yields some laugh out loud humor, as when Jake stumbles homewards, carrying the distraught dragonlet (he eventually names her Lois) and the soup-pot he has been using to feed her, in his shirt:
The idea that I had to stop and make a fire every half hour was a whole lot too much. And I was sure I should be feeding [the dragonlet] more often than every half hour anyway, I just couldn't. Fortunately the broth pot was small. Mind you, my shirt had not been made to hold both a dragonlet and even a small pot of broth so I had to tuck the pot sort of down my pants, which made walking harder, and cradle the dragonlet with one hand so it didn't fall down the hole, and the pot leaked. Well, so did the dragonlet. After awhile, I stopped paying attention. (ARC, p. 58)
There is much discussion of "dragon poop" and other dragon substances as Jake struggles to care for his foundling which, while removing much of the romance from our notions of a dragon, has a charming irreverence. Some of the details Jake gives us about Smokehill, with its giant, invisible, frequency-disrupting fence (to keep the dragons from flying free) seem implausible (how did they have this technology in 1910 when the park was founded?), but McKinley's take on the dragons themselves is solid: dragons are hot (even sizzling) to the touch, resulting in many painful burns for Jake, and science has discovered that they are marsupials, carrying their newborns in a stomach pouch (hence, Jake's shirt-stuffing antics). They're also telepathic, of course.
But it is neither the occasionally shaky science or expected dragon clichés that bog down the story. It is Jake's narration. For when his voice fails to ring true, it fails spectacularly, rendering some passages, at best, confusing and, at worst, floundering in speech tics only Joss Whedon could get away with. Here, at the beginning of the story, Jake goes into an extended rant about why he is reluctant to relate his tale at all:
I sure don't remember every conversation I've had in the last four years ... Not the ordinary every day ones you have a lot, like: "How are you?" and "What's for dinner?" ... Those are easy. I mean the one-off ones. The ones why you're trying to write something someone else is going to read at all. (p.3)
Coming so early in the story, these bizarre grammatical twists ("the ones why you're trying ...") disrupt the flow. Simply following Jake's exaggerated teenage dialect can become a chore—which is disheartening, because Jake talks a lot. This is his story, after all, and one quickly realizes that neither he nor McKinley has much interest in fleshing out any themes or characters that don't directly intrude on his thought process. It is also distracting that, despite several years having elapsed between Jake's Lois-raising days and the point at which he begins to narrate his recollections, his dialect never matures. Would a twenty-two year old really say: "I was, like, responsible?" Perhaps. But part of the glory of fiction writing is that we can dispense with murky, real-life dialects in favor of clarity and meaning.
In Beauty, McKinley used first person narrative to suitably lovely effect. In Dragonhaven, being bound so exclusively to Jake's point of view becomes constrictive. The other characters who populate his world—bratty seven-year-old Eleanor (why they let her clean out the cages of lesser dragons is beyond me), prospective sweetheart Martha, dear-old-dad, and resident antagonist, Eric—barely register. Each has exactly one character trait, undermining McKinley's obvious desire to populate the novel with endearing misfits. When Jake tells you that he's fallen in love with Martha or that Eleanor is going to be President someday, you just have to take him at his word, for even the scenes featuring these characters are, more often than not, mere summaries, the action scenes being reserved solely for Jake and his dragons. An important sub-plot involving the parents of the dead poacher, for instance, is tossed off in a few sentences. And while Jake tells us the parents "have hired goons to write letters and hang out with members of Congress" in order to get Smokehill closed, Jake never comes into direct contact with them.
This is where McKinley's rejection of the "boy-raises-foundling" motif undermines her novel. By the end of chapter two, all the elements are in place for a story about a boy desperately trying to keep his illegal dragon-baby from being discovered by a callous government: Jake has established that he has broken the law, that the park is in danger of being shut down, that the parents of the dead poacher are calling for legal action, and that keeping Lois a secret is paramount, not just to the survival of the park, but the wellbeing of Jake's entire community. Given today's political climate, one couldn't be blamed for assuming McKinley will use the familiar story to shed some light on current conservation efforts or endangered species issues. However, having apparently lined up her ducks, McKinley departs completely from the formula and begins a deep examination of the Lois/Jake relationship. She has Jake refer to himself as "mom," and uses his (admittedly heartwarming) bonding sessions with Lois to play up themes centered on the importance of nurture within the family unit. Jake, having lost his mother, is obviously wrestling with some issues, along with Lois's dirty diapers.
Occasionally, the mom stuff works. One would have to be made of stone not to tear up at Jake's encounter with Lois' dying mother. But because Jake's mother has never been properly characterized—we meet her when she's already dead, a mere memory—it becomes distracting when Jake's relationship with her, which seemed like a sub-plot, begins to dominate a story featuring fire-breathing marsupials and black-op helicopters. Indeed, the few breathtaking action pieces McKinley conjures when Jake meets up with some full-grown dragons play out like the climax of a Michael Bay film, complete with boiling sentiment and swishing helicopter blades. They stir you—yet because we spend so much time muddled in Jake's continuous exposition, dealing with themes that lack the action to frame them, and experiencing an after-the-fact climactic narration involving supporting characters who are barely fleshed out above the level of cartoons, scenes are all they are. McKinley has long since broken away from her "adventure" plot, in favor of extended psychological musings, causing a severe loss of momentum. Yet it has not been a clean break. The reader is left in some doubt over whether to expect a pay-off of the "Jake pursed by the government" plot, or whether the heady exploration of parental themes will finally take hold. McKinley attempts to honor both, but the lack of a central focal point creates narrative confusion. No shots are fired. No bad guy is met face-to-face. A heroic showdown between park employees and government goons gets related after the crisis is already over, and by the time the epilogue rolls around, suggesting that this wasn't a "dragon" story, but a "family" story (and yes, dragons are part of our family too!) there hasn't been enough at stake for the reader for them to care about the final symbolic image. An action-packed climax related in real time might have risked cliché, but it would have given the story immediacy. This is, in short, a story where the imminent threat never materializes.
As for the exploration of deeper themes: Jake's dealing with the loss of his mother, his maturation into a parent via his caring for Lois, reconciliation with his father and overcoming the psychic wounds of the past—I have no doubt McKinley had brilliant intentions, but with no compelling action to frame Jake's pondering ("Could I even be an un-dragoned human anymore?"), it comes off as heavy handed and tiresome. Ironically, for all Jake's talking, it is in his meetings with two silent, full-fledged dragons: Gulp (a female) and Bud (an alpha-male), that the reader begins to sense the spiritual nature of the family bond McKinley strives to portray. Without ever speaking (indeed, Jake ties himself in knots trying to explain how it is he can understand his new dragon pals), Gulp manages to express more complex emotions than the entire supporting cast of humans put together. A little fire breathing here, a little posturing there, and we know exactly what she's trying to say. A scene in which she spirits Jake and Lois away from approaching helicopters reads as immediate and poignant. And the portrayal of the imposing Bud makes you wonder if the movie rights have been optioned yet—a pivotal sequence involving Jake, Bud, and those damn helicopters again was surely written with the screen in mind. It's simply a pity McKinley doesn't temper Jake's philosophizing with more scenes of danger and derring-do. The failure to make a seamless mixture of these components is, indeed, puzzling, considering that she has managed it before in other tales. In the end, McKinley's latest must remain a valiant experiment in subverting the expectations of a deeply ingrained genre. That bullet-to-the-head Old Yeller ending has grown repellent in its repetition, but Dragonhaven proves that the foundling-story needs a slightly longer runway if it is ever to soar above its daunting fence.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California and is pursuing her MFA in popular fiction through the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Her fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.
You must log in to post a comment.