Laurie Valentine’s father works as a fundraiser to fight polio. He and their housekeeper, Mrs. Strawberry, restrict Laurie’s activities severely during spring and summer because of the chance she will be exposed to the disease --- to the point that Laurie fears the sight of daffodils that herald the beginning of the dreaded “polio season.” Because her father works a lot, Laurie has a quiet, sad and lonely childhood --- that is, until she’s 11 and meets the new neighbor, Dickie Espinosa. Dickie is only eight and is tutored at home instead of attending school, but he becomes Laurie’s first --- and only --- friend. They play together constantly; much of it centers on stories spun about an imaginary village based on the miniature world of Dickie’s detailed toy train set.
As Laurie and Dickie play at the neighborhood creek in early spring, Laurie notices daffodils just beginning to emerge. She stomps them down, but when she returns home, she is in trouble with the protective and terrified Mrs. Strawberry, who fears that the creek might carry the polio virus. After Laurie argues with the housekeeper, her father assures her that if she can hold out just a bit longer, a polio vaccine will soon be available, and her life will no longer be restricted by the threat of contagion. However, Laurie soon learns that Dickie is a victim of the dreaded disease.
When Laurie --- against the wishes of her father and Mrs. Strawberry --- secretly visits the hospital, she finds Dickie in an iron lung. He shares the “respirator room” with two other children who are also in the same awful mechanism: the beautiful and disdainful Carolyn and the rather mysterious Chip. Laurie is horrified when the nurse praises Dickie for, with tremendous effort, barely twitching his fingers. She does not want to show pity to the patients, but is at a loss as to what to say and how to act. So it’s a relief when Dickie brags about the stories Laurie invents and then asks her to make up one to entertain the three of them.
Laurie begins to spin an ongoing fantasy tale about a fearful giant and the most unlikely wannabe giant-slayer hero ever, picking up her story with each visit to the hospital. She weaves in suggestions from her listeners and sometimes hits astoundingly close to home, as when she unknowingly gives the Swamp Witch Carolyn’s middle name. Meanwhile, Dickie becomes sincerely convinced that he is one of the characters in the tale. As more listeners gather, the background stories of the polio victims are revealed.
At the very beginning of THE GIANT-SLAYER, six-year-old Laurie maps out her vision of the future, which plays a significant role in the resolution of both her fantasy tale and her life story following an unexpected plot twist. Real life and Laurie’s fantasy tale weave together throughout the book seamlessly, and author Iain Lawrence writes in an exquisitely understated manner, leaving his unadorned stories --- both the realistic historical fiction and the fantasy tale --- to blindside the reader with powerful emotions. Each story is riveting in its own right, but intertwined they become much more than the sum of their parts. THE GIANT-SLAYER is a mesmerizing and masterful piece of work, which will surely find its way to many “Best of the Year” lists and win some big awards.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on November 10, 2009
- Publication Date: November 10, 2009
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
- ISBN-10: 0385733763
- ISBN-13: 9780385733762