Subscribe to The Horn Book

Far Far Away

far far awayFolk and fairy tales have long been fodder for writers, who re-tell, borrow, fracture, and invert the original stories in their own. I would suggest that Tom McNeal bends the relationship between fairy tale and novel in a new way in his suspenseful tale Far Far Away. What do others think about blending of new and old? What does the novel suggest about the power of story? About the role of folklore in both literature and our psyche?  What else strikes you about this story that is wholly original yet draws deeply on common lore?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.



  1. Sophie Barnes says:

    The novel begins as just that, a novel, but it quickly becomes apparent, with elements of fairy tale woven in, that it is a more complex and compelling story. Far, Far Away is a modern day fairy tale that presents fairy tales in a new and unique way. The novel revamps the plot or trajectory of a fairy tale, and highlights the complexities and darker side that many people do not consider when thinking about a fairy tale.

    I liked Jacob Grimm as the ghost, he taught the readers several facts about fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm. Even with the element of the ghost, the story felt real and believable, perhaps because he was grounded in history and felt like a somewhat reliable narrator. Just like in the fairytales that the Grimm brothers collected, there is always more to the story, often a darker side that goes unrecognized. Jacob watches the fairytale unfold, and it not able to realize what is going on until the wheels are already put into motion and the Finder of Occasions is revealed. In the end, the novel/story was another fairytale to be added to the collection.

    I enjoyed the juxtaposition between the appealing and delicious, such as the baker’s special cakes and pastries, the green smoke, and the tantalizing smells, and the true darkness and evil that was rooted underneath. In this way, there are elements of Hansel and Gretel in the story that I enjoyed. Evil lurks silently under the surface until the truth is revealed and the role of evil dominates the plot. Jacob reminds us that fairytales have a darker side, much like the one that we are reading. The character of the baker, and his ability to deceive Jacob fascinated me. The baker is also a storyteller, and enjoys telling stories to Jeremy and Ginger. Perhaps he wants prisoners so that he will always have people who listen and care, but I never fully understand his motives. Folklore and the role of stories play an important role for each character, and between characters. Fairytales connect Jacob and Jeremy across time, and play a major role in both of their lives. They also help Ginger, Jeremy, and Frank Bailey get through the difficult time in the dungeon.

    Towards the end of the novel we learn more about Jacob and his story, specifically his regret over the way he treated his nephew. While in the beginning of the novel Jacob feels peripheral to the story, it becomes his story too, and clear that he is also looking for a happy ending. The novel and fairy tale do, to some extent, have a happy ending and the villain gets what he deserved, much like what we would expect from a fairy tale. In terms of the happy ending, we know that Jacob is able to find peace, but I can’t help but wonder about the endings of Jeremy and Ginger. Were they truly happy? We know that they are okay, but since Jacob leaves, we never truly find out about their happiness.

  2. I agree with Sophie that even with the element of the ghost, the story seemed believable. He was a compassionate and reliable narrator, with an emotionally complex backstory that drives his feelings and actions throughout the plot. Throughout the story, I thought that Jacob’s presence created an intriguing juxtaposition between the real and fantasy aspects of fairy tales. There was a constant tension between the notion of the happy ending, and the darker reality of Jeremy’s story, which may not include a neat and clean conclusion. I was really bought into this conflict; even thought I knew I was a reading a story that would presumably turn into a fairy tale, I was nervous while reading that Jeremy’s story would not end on a positive note.

  3. Rachel Lacks says:

    I very much enjoyed this book. I was hesitant to begin it, because I typically steer away from fantasy and science fiction genres. But when I was able to see all of the elements of the book as parts of fairy tales, I was much more enthusiastic about reading it, and wound up really liking it. The specific situation of every fairy tale changes, but the characters and themes remain consistent. For example, taking a bite of the cake and falling in love reminded me of Snow White consuming an apple that had a magical element. The Finder of Occasions was the mysterious villain present in just about every fairy tale.

    I was immediately intrigued by the idea of Jacob as a narrator because I greatly appreciate the fairy tale element he added to the story. I found myself thinking of him as more of a sub-conscious voice of reasoning for Jeremy, as opposed to a ghost-figure, and was therefore more able to see him in real-life terms. On a fairy tale line of reasoning, Jacob can be seen as parallel to a fairy godmother to Jeremy, just as Cinderella has in her story to guide her.

    This story us more modern, is some sense distracting it from being a true fairy tale. But overall, the contemporary setting did not give too much specific detail as to when the story was actually taking place, so I was able to set it as being long ago in my head, relating that to the idea of it taking place “far far away.”

  4. Nicole Eslinger says:

    I completely agree with Rachel in regard to the setting of this book. Although there were some clues to suggest that it is set in contemporary times, there is a sense that the story occurs in a very distant time or place. I was really impressed by the ability of the author to balance the contemporary aspects with a fairy tale story line.

    I really enjoyed Jacob as a narrator of the tale. His language added to my sense that the novel takes place in a time ling ago. He also provides the reader with an objective but personal viewpoint and his narration creates the sense that we are indeed being told a fairy tale. It seems almost as though Jacob is reading a tale to us.

    I also appreciated the magical elements woven in throughout the story, such as the green smoke of the baker’s shop and the curse of the Prince Cakes. These pieces of the story provide the reader with the sense that magic and fantasy are not only in tales of long ago times, but also present in our current world.

  5. I quite enjoy novels that weave in elements from fairy tales, whether it is a retelling, like some books of Gail Carson Levine, which rework elements from Cinderella and Snow White; or books that are self-aware of their fairy-tale connectedness, like The Tale of Desperaux; or books that mimic the simple lightness of fairy tales and yet also build upon dark omissions, like The Graveyard Book.

    Far, Far Away continues to demonstrate how the genres of fairy tale and novel can blend with kaleidoscopic variety. As many have commented, the choice of Jacob as a narrator is a creative one, and his voice is a powerful force of the story. It takes advantage of the novel form’s complex options of showing perspective, taps into the power of oral tradition of folk tales, and adds almost a sense of legitimacy and affirmation by invoking such a famed name.

    I feel the fairy tale element really opens up a reader to revert to a more childlike state of mind, generous and tolerant, ready to be fascinated. It’s easier to suspend belief and laud things that might, in another context, be deemed as predictable, shallow, or ridiculous. Whether it is something like cartoonlike names, or as the discrepancy of modern trappings with an ancient story feel, what could be jarring becomes tasty and alluring.

    Because fairy tales strike a primitive cord in us, their elements are like ore from an inexhaustible mine, and I feel writers will continue, like McNeal, to experiment with its alchemy and finding new alloys of it with the novel form.

  6. Kara Brennan says:

    I agree with others above that I really enjoyed the blending of fairy tale and reality in this story. It took me a little bit to figure out what was happening, whether the story was set purely in fantasy or in reality (with elements of fantasy), but once I got into the idea that the two were blended I really liked it. I thought that having a famous ghost narrator was a really original way to tie the elements of reality and fantasy together, especially since this ghost would be an expert on fantasy. I also liked that it felt like the story took place in a little pocket of fantasy in the real world. Never Better was obviously located in the United States, for example, because they mention Iowa and the Grand Canyon, and it’s set in a reality where Walt Disney and G-ratings exist, but it also felt like a European village where families stay for generations and everyone has a trade, where kids read Beowulf for fun and no one has cell phones. Also people believe in spells and magic, the town is possibly only able to be found “out of the corner of [a ghost’s] eye,” and is called “Never Better,” which is pretty great.

    Because fairytale tropes are so ingrained in us it was fun to see them popping up all over the story, and because Jacob tells us right off that bat that the story gets dark it was fun to be on the lookout for hints about who the villain would be. As soon as they noticed that the Baker’s house looked like gingerbread, for example, I was thinking i was a Hansel and Gretel tale, or when we found out that Conk’s family were named after bravery words I wondered if he would be a Knight in Shining armor. I felt like this concept was a really fun twist on an old storytelling format, and having one of the Brothers Grimm directly involved in the story itself was really unique.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind