Treading the lines between reality and myth, the modern day and the remote past, the concrete and the imagined, has long been Lisa Tuttle’s specialty: books such as The Mysteries and The Pillow Friend highlight both the appeal and the danger of blurring the line between the magical and the everyday. The setting, crossing, and erasure of boundaries, both in the world and in the human heart, is a major theme of Tuttle’s, and it weaves through The Silver Bough like a silver thread.
The title evokes that classic, if somewhat archaic, collection of myths, Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), and this is not an accident. There is, however, another Silver Bough, a mid-20th century collection of Scottish folklore that provides much of the setting of Tuttle’s novel. Myths and legends of Scotland and the surrounding regions steal into the lives of the characters like fog rolling in off the Scottish coast, and the way that they react suggests that they are people who have been long used to living with entities that lurk just out of sight, waiting to come in.
The Silver Bough features three viewpoints, all of them American, all of them transplanted to the tiny Scottish coastal town of Appleton for various reasons. All of them, too, have suffered loss: Kathleen Mullaroy, the town’s new librarian, is recently divorced; Nell Westray, a new widow, has moved to Appleton with the intent of reviving its vanished orchards; and Ashley Kaldis, whose best friend was killed in a car accident, has come to visit relatives. All three also encounter another stranger in town, a young man named Ronan who seems to want something from each of them.
They are the story’s major characters, but they move through and interact with a landscape that becomes, as is often the case in fantasy fiction, a character itself: a town on a scrap of land that is almost an island, that is hypothesized by at least one resident to have been drifting about in the sea before crashing into the Scottish coast, and that, due to a landslide shortly after Ashley’s arrival, finds itself abruptly cut off from the mainland.
Coastal places often feel as though they’re very far away from anywhere, and this is as true of Appleton as anywhere else even before the landslide occurs. Her characters, themselves feeling cut off from others and from the world due to the losses they’ve suffered, exist in a place that itself feels distant in both space and time from both their former lives and from the real world in general. Reaching it requires travel along a narrow, winding, dangerous road, or else charter flight or boat, with no regular service for either. This isolation has clearly been to the town’s detriment, as locals' determination to turn Appleton into a tourist destination wars with its slow but continual decline since the 1950s—a decline charted chiefly in newspaper articles, local rumor, and one very unusual diary.
1950, incidentally, was the last year that the Apple Queen was crowned in Appleton, in a ceremony reminiscent of folk customs throughout the British Isles. So long as the Apple Queen and her consort share of Appleton’s Fairest (a golden apple, natch), they will attain their heart’s desire (usually one another) and the town’s continued prosperity is ensured.
Such rituals for fertility and prosperity are hardly unusual, but the Scottish locale, the apples, and even the description of Appleton itself are highly reminiscent of The Wicker Man (the original 1973 film that featured Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, not the unfortunate remake starring Nicolas Cage). There, too, the residents are firmly convinced that without the execution of a particular ritual, their fortunes will fail.
The plot of The Silver Bough does not work itself out in the same way as that of The Wicker Man, but it possesses the same quality of accumulating seemingly perfectly ordinary details in such a way as to build an increasingly creepy and uneasy atmosphere throughout the novel. The landslide, the sense of confinement about both Appleton and the story taking place in it, the curiously restrained behavior of the principal characters that becomes less restrained and more wildly emotional as the story continues, all come together to create such a sense of not-quite-rightness that, when the truly weird appears, it is both deeply unnerving and entirely natural. For the principal characters, this growing strangeness centers on Ronan: all three are attracted to him, but react to him in ways that set the stage for him to take control of the story. Ashley flirts with him, but finds his enigmatic answers to her questions more frustrating than intriguing; Kathleen wonders why he avoids her library so assiduously, even as she becomes romantically involved with another of Appleton’s residents; Nell, detecting that he wants something from her, is by turns drawn in and repulsed. Ronan is the key to Appleton’s enchantment, which takes on ominous connotations as the town’s landscape begins to shift around the characters and its other-than-human residents make their presences felt. The result is claustrophobic, a magical binding the characters cannot escape save by the route Ronan offers them.
The reason all of this works so well is that Tuttle contrasts it with ordinary details that are, in fact, perfectly ordinary: Nell’s growing expertise with apples, Ashley’s adolescent unrest, and Kathleen’s daily round at the town’s library. As a librarian myself, I was pleased to see this latter so faithfully reproduced—including, sadly, the endemic lack of funding and the endless administrivia. These women live in response to sadly ordinary tragedies; Nell, feeling responsible for her husband’s death, finds it so difficult to be close to anyone that she has difficulty making friends. Ashley, still a teenager, is as trapped by adolescence as by Appleton. Kathleen seems doomed to live out her days as a spinster. Against this, the weaving of a tale involving three women and a golden apple is both familiar and alarming.
The Silver Bough contains a strong romantic thread, which serves to tie the lives of the principal characters to historical figures in the town’s past, some of whom have set down their thoughts in journals and newspaper articles that, of course, are found in the Appleton library. Kathleen finds herself intrigued by Dave Varney, a songwriter who was once the object of her childhood crush; Ashley meets cute with Mario, who is exiled from his native Italy for having loved the wrong person (also a recurrent theme in The Silver Bough, though a secondary one). Nell, for her part, is distant from everyone, but it’s her connection with Ronan that becomes the most intense and the most relevant, for it’s in her orchard that the legendary golden apple has grown. As the sense of distance and isolation permeates the story, and the secondary characters drop away, these relationships become more starkly apparent and emotionally raw: the emerging fairyland that Tuttle’s Appleton becomes brings with it certain elements of the human unconscious.
Less romantically, Tuttle wrestles with what, in the early 21st century, it really means to be transported or drawn into fairyland from the modern world. You can trace a line from The Silver Bough all the way back to Lord Dunsany, who with works like The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) suggested a realm drawing away in the face of modernity and rationality, but still tantilizingly close: getting beyond the fields we know—a classic description that Lord Dunsany himself coined—was a matter not of distance, but of desire. Tolkien’s elves diminished, and finally departed, but writers since then have had all kinds of takes on what it means to deal with fairies, whether it’s Emma Bull’s urban elves or the family affairs of John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981). The upshot of all this is that Tuttle is able to get away with a bit of shorthand, focus on her characters, and do a couple of interesting and creepy things with her fairies that ensure that readers will never think of little people living in the cupboards in quite the same way again, ever.
However, shorthand in this instance does not mean shortcuts; associations with myth and legend are not only suggested but explicitly drawn. The characters themselves bring up Avalon, the mysterious Apple Isle of legend, Hy-Brasil, Atlantis, and other distant green lands that have inspired mythographers and fantasy writers since even before Tolkien’s day. The golden apple carries with it its own set of associations, such that one begins to suspect that Kathleen, Ashley, and Nell will be in competition for both the apple and Ronan’s affections. Fortunately, it doesn’t work out that way: and, although at times Tuttle relies overmuch on the emotional instability of some of her characters, she also gets them to say and experience some pretty important things about what having your heart’s desire really means.
Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.