Peter Pan, by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie.
A play turned novel, published in 1911.
I can hardly believe I’ve never read it before, but I haven’t. I’ve seen a version of the play, in Stratford. I don’t remember much of the play. Saw the Spielberg movie Hook; don’t remember much of that either.
A friend gave us the novel years ago, as a gift. It appears to be a first edition, though half the first page is torn. I stumbled upon it a couple of weeks ago and picked it up to see what all the fuss is about.
The first thing that struck me is that it’s funny. Laugh out loud funny at least twice. The second thing that struck me is that while being a product of its time (the indigenous people of Neverland, although portrayed as a noble tribe, are saddled with a most unfortunate name, one recently ditched by an American football outfit), its wit and cleverness and whimsy stand the test of time, for this reader at least.
A dog as a nanny. A boy returning for his shadow and a girl sewing it back on. Imaginative. Children who can fly. Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. Evocative. Pirates and fairies and Indians and mermaids. Adventure! A boy who refuses to grow up. The stuff of myth, and the Big Idea behind the book, what makes it tick even more than the crocodile who swallowed the clock.
The book rings true in part because it’s brutal and mean. This ain’t Disney. Barrie doesn’t write what he thinks you want to read. Peter Pan is selfish and inconsiderate. Charming and charismatic, but narcissistic and cruel, with a lousy memory to boot. He’s nobody’s idea of a good friend, at least not after you’ve grown up and know better. And the whole lot of them, all the lost boys, are bloodthirsty murderers. Sure it’s pirates they’re killing, and it’s all based on make-believe, but it’s a proud thing in this tale to have run somebody through with a sword.
Characters are deftly drawn, some at least. Peter flies right off the page. Hook is surprisingly complex. Mr. Darling is hardly believable but you can see him, hear him, laugh at him. Wendy lives and breathes and even grows. Tinkerbelle is jealous, spiteful, not much to redeem her, and then, rather callously, is dead and gone before you know it, just like Mrs. Darling, dispatched with hardly a backward glance.
It’s a good thing Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy, as it was originally called) was published in 1911. It would not see the light of day today, I don’t think. Not with hundreds of thousands of books published a year with which to compete. The boy who never grows up is a terrific concept, but it wouldn’t stand much of a chance against J.K. Rowling’s the boy who lived, so much richer and better realized.
Still, I’m glad Barrie wrote it, and I’m glad it was successful enough to have endured long enough for me to have found it now, at the age of 57. There’s enough of a kid left in me for it to have resonated. And the adult in me respects the craft behind it. The creativity, the skill. The confidence, the whimsy.
Wish I’d read it when I was ten, though.
I might have adored it then.