Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Once Upon a Wardrobe Book Review and Excerpt

 



Happy Release Day for Once Upon a WardrobeHow are you, My Lovelies?  I'm back from my trip, and I have a few things to share about it soon.  But today it's all about the best book I've read all year, and probably the best I've read in a very long time.  Not only am I reviewing this beautiful book about Narnia's origins,  I'm also sharing an excerpt so you, too, can be mesmerized by this enchanting story.

ONCE UPON A WARDROBE  By Patti Callahan  
Harper Muse; October 19, 2021; Hardcover; 320 pp; $24.99; ISBN 978-0785251729

According to Goodreads:

From Patti Callahan, the bestselling author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, comes another enchanting story that pulls back the curtain on the early life of C. S. Lewis.

“Where did Narnia come from?”

The answer will change everything.

Megs Devonshire is brilliant with numbers and equations, on a scholarship at Oxford, and dreams of solving the greatest mysteries of physics.

She prefers the dependability of facts—except for one: the younger brother she loves with all her heart doesn’t have long to live. When George becomes captivated by a copy of a brand-new book called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and begs her to find out where Narnia came from, there’s no way she can refuse.

Despite her timidity about approaching the famous author, Megs soon finds herself taking tea with the Oxford don and his own brother, imploring them for answers. What she receives instead are more stories . . . stories of Jack Lewis’s life, which she takes home to George.

Why won’t Mr. Lewis just tell her plainly what George wants to know? The answer will reveal to Meg many truths that science and math cannot, and the gift she thought she was giving to her brother—the story behind Narnia—turns out to be his gift to her, instead: hope.

Praise for Once Upon a Wardrobe:

“I advise you to read this book, then wait for a while and then read it again, for while it may not be Narnia, there is magic in it.” —Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis’s stepson









About Patti Callahan 

Patti Callahan is the New York Times, USA TODAY, and Globe and Mail- bestselling novelist of sixteen novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah, out now, and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19, 2021.  A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year, and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the cofounder and cohost of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. 

Connect with Patti!  Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter







My Review:



... is how Megs begins her stories (told to her by C.S. Lewis on the origins of Narnia depicted in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) to her brother.  

Megs is on a mission for her little brother who has questions about Narnia after he read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  Megs boldly approaches author C.S. Lewis's home, The Kilns, because she wants to ask him about the origins of Narnia for her dying brother George.  Instead of answering Megs directly, Lewis tells her stories about his past beginning with his childhood in Ireland.  After their first meeting, Lewis invites her back to The Kilns for another visit, and the pattern continues for several weeks.  These meetings, although thought-provoking, are frustrating to Megs because she's looking for concrete answers (she's a mathematician after all), and she's running out of time.  After her meetings with Jack (C.S.'s preferred name) and his brother Warnie, she rushes back to her dorm room to write down the stories while they're still fresh in her mind so she can then travel home to Worcester on the weekends and share them with George.  

Megs has never been a reader of fairytales or a student of mythology.  She's skeptical of the value of studying them until she meets another Oxford student named Padraig who studies literature.  He's very intelligent, and he challenges Megs to read stories, especially mythical ones, because the answers to universal questions can be found in them.  During a conversation in the Bodleian Library, Padraig asserts that he and Megs are trying to answer the same questions using different methodologies.  Their friendship grows over the semester, and on Christmas Eve Eve (December 23rd) Padraig takes Megs and George on a Narnia-related adventure of a lifetime.  

This story touched my heart, Lovelies.  Megs is one of my favorite characters of all time because she's a smart young woman in STEM (very unusual in 1950) and has a teachable spirit.  Her determination is admirable as she balances studying mathematics with gathering stories from Jack.  She loves her family deeply, and her devotion to her brother is heartwarming.  Initially I wanted to read this book to learn more about C.S. Lewis's life and Narnia because I'm a fan, but this book is Megs's story, and what a wonderful story it is!  Megs, George, and Padraig will forever remain in my heart.  I am so grateful to have read this book, and one quote stands out to me.  I'm taking it to heart:

"Every life should be guided and enriched by one book or another, don't you agree?  Certainly, every formative moment in my life has been enriched or informed by a book. You must be very careful about what you choose to read--unless you want to stay stuck in your opinions and hard-boiled thoughts, you must be very careful."

~Jack to Megs in Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

There's even more wisdom in this sweet book.  I highly recommend you procure a copy for your home library, and a stack of them to give for Christmas presents.  It will make the Narnia fans in your life very happy!  

ALSO:  I was fortunate enough to attend summer school at Balliol College, Oxford,  where I "read" English literature. It was one of the most amazing summers of my life.  C.S. Lewis was a tutor at Magdalen College; it's actually pronounced MAWD-lin.  

Disclosure:

I received an ARC of Once Upon a Wardrobe via Wunderkind PR in exchange for a fair and honest review.



As promised, here is an excerpt from Once Upon a Wardrobe.


C h a p t e r   T h r e e



WELCOME TO THE KILNS
 

Three days have passed since I promised George I would ask his question of Mr. Lewis. And this is my third time trespassing on his property, which is called the Kilns. December snow reflects sunlight like sequins. The frozen lake behind the house is a silver-gray disc of light and shadow. I sit on a large boulder, which from just a few yards away looks like the head of a giant buried in a mound of winter white. Cold seeps through my trousers, and I don’t care. I’m enchanted by the hushed and mystical quality of the woodlands smack in the middle of Oxfordshire. I’m captured by the closest thing to magic—which I don’t believe in—that I’ve ever known.

I’ve done just as George has asked—well, almost—and I’ve tracked down C. S. Lewis, the tutor of English literature at Magdalen College. I’d have gone straight to Magdalen, but it doesn’t admit women as students. I am more often seen as a girl, not a woman, reminded constantly of my youth and diminutive size. They call me “little lady” and “darling” and “cutie.” Let me see them undo an equation as long as their arm; I doubt they can.

So instead of storming Magdalen’s gates, I’d decided to attend one of his famous talks. Although the event interfered with my study group, I found myself in the Examination Schools on High Street for a lecture on Edmund Spenser’s tales, something I cared little for, but I wanted to hear Mr. Lewis and try to ask him the only question that mattered to me: George’s question.

Mr. Lewis entered the dusty, crowded lecture hall in a flurry of black coat and hat and cold air. The room was crowded to its edges with enthusiastic students, some sitting on the windowsills and others standing at the back of the hall. While Mr. Lewis settled in at the lectern, still unwrapping his scarf, and now standing in his black gown, he at once commenced speaking in a bass and booming voice about Mr. Spenser and his book The Faerie Queen. “You may hear angels singing—or come upon satyrs romping . . .”

He lectured with such enunciation and clear speech that I heard every word. When he was nearly finished, he reached over and donned his coat and hat, then wound his scarf around his neck, lecturing all the while until he walked out the door.

By the end of his lecture, I did care a bit more about Edmund Spenser and his work and the revival of medieval motifs and how a poet ought to be a moral teacher.

That’s how Mr. Lewis is; he captures the mind as quick as a heartbeat.

After the lecture, I followed Mr. Lewis at a long distance as he walked nearly to a run through the town’s streets, his walking stick swinging to a secret rhythm. From behind Magdalen he hurried onto a path that ran parallel to the London Road called Cuckoo Lane. I tried to keep up with him on a secluded and walled passageway through gardens, then up the hill toward Headington. I followed at a safe distance, out of breath and carrying my books. It was a charming hidden route, and we passed under an arched stone overhang connecting wall to wall, ivy growing wild and giving me a feeling of the world being made of nothing but stone and vines and hidden crannies. The narrow Cuckoo Lane connected Headington to Old Headington and seemed meant for only a secret few; now I was one of them.

From there I trudged up the long hill to his house.

I tried to find my words, to cough out the only question that mattered, but nothing happened. He was oblivious to me, his thoughts wherever an author’s thoughts might go. Before I knew it, he had walked through the gate of the Kilns and was gone.

I’ve been sitting in these woods behind his brick house for three evenings in a row, trying to screw up the courage to speak to him. So far that screw hasn’t turned far enough. I’ve nearly decided to invent a tale and answer for George, tell him that Narnia came from a great box of
stories that Mr. Lewis keeps in his study. I will tell George that Mr. Lewis is magical and has his own sources that he refuses to reveal.

But I can’t lie to George. I never have, and I’m not about to start now.

This afternoon I rode the bus to the Kilns, and now I stare over the rolling and hilly acreage, thick with fir and alder, lumpy with boulders and tree stumps. The Kilns feels a world away from university. It isn’t Narnia—I’m not so deluded to believe I can walk onto the author’s property and find a spired castle and a white witch. But there is a lamppost or two along the way, and the trees do indeed appear as if they might house sleeping dryads. The frozen lake might be where Lucy ran across with Mrs. Beaver. That is, if you look at it just right through squinted eyes.

Through the still air, I’ve heard the voices of the people who live in the author’s house and I’ve come to differentiate them. There are two Lewis brothers and a man named Paxford, who has such a quick-drilling sound I can barely distinguish his jumbled words. Paxford keeps the land, planting and cutting and cleaning. Twice he’s walked near me and hasn’t seen me hiding. His hands are large, and I was mesmerized by their size as he cut down a branch that blocked the view to the small lake.

C. S. Lewis is called Jack. His brother is called Warnie; I don’t know his real name. I suspect these brothers, despite being quite old to me, would understand why I sit on their land and huddle on their rock, because they seem to love each other the way George and I love each other. They would understand my grief and fear. But maybe they will never really know how I feel, because trespassing does not seem the best way to begin a friendship.

I’ve only seen them once.

The first two times I came, I stayed for hours. Each hour my courage grew only the tiniest bit, as my toes got colder by quite a lot. Soon I would become brave enough to call out their names and blab the question I have come to ask: Where did Narnia come from? My brother, he needs to know. He must know.

But I’m a coward, unable to approach them.

The afternoon sun moves behind a bank of clouds flat and low, and the woods start to turn to shadow-shapes. Trees, bushes, and rocks on the white ground appear like cutouts in lace. I think of how the author must’ve found some of his fantasyland in this place, because I think I can see it too. I can almost imagine Mr. Tumnus ambling from behind a rock, or the great Aslan setting his huge lion paws on the ground as it shakes with his majesty. My attention wanders. I let my vigilance flag, and a voice shocks me from my reverie.

“Well, hello there!”

I startle and slip from the rock, landing softly and with a grunt in the deep snow. My legs askew and my arms thrown behind me, I must appear to be quite crazy. A man—I see it is the author’s brother, Warnie—is looking down at me.

“I’m so very sorry,” I say as I rearrange my limbs to stand.

The man holds out his leather-gloved hand and I take it. He pulls me up. “Are you all right?”

“I am. Please don’t be angry. I’m sorry I’m trespassing. I’ll leave. I was just . . . sitting here thinking. I wasn’t doing anything . . . wrong. I promise.” My words tumble out on top of each other.

He bursts into a laugh so wonderful that the trees seem to shake with his shoulders. “I doubt you are here to do harm.”

Now that he’s up close, I can see him clearer. He’s tall with a jowly face and a shaggy moustache. Above his ruddy nose are twinkling brown eyes. A tweed hat sits low, tilted over his forehead, and his body is covered with layers of coats and sweaters. All about him is the enticing aroma of pipe smoke and wood fire. He looks at once both jolly and sad.

“Don’t be so sorry. I’m Warren Lewis. And you are?”

 “I am Megs Devonshire.”

“Is there something you’re looking for? Are you lost?”

“No. I know where I am. I’m here on purpose.         I was looking for . . . Narnia.” It is the stupidest thing to say. A grown woman—well, almost that—claiming such a thing. The heat of embarrassment crawls beneath my woolen coat and up my neck. “I mean—”

“Yes, we’ve had this happen before.” His voice radiates kindness, and he doesn’t seem to be chiding or humoring me at all.

I brush the snow from my coat and clap my hands together to remove the snow from my mittens. My hair falls from its clasp and into my eyes; I brush the dark curls away. “I’m not a fool. I know there’s no real Narnia. It’s for my brother . . . he wants to know how it started. He’s sick. He’s . . .” Nothing is coming out right. If I had made plans, if I’d thought it all through as I did my math problems, this wouldn’t be happening.

“Your brother is ill?” His eyebrows drop and his lips form a straight line.

“Very.”

“I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, there is actually.” I dig up the brave light hidden deep inside my fathoms of awkwardness and tell him. Because what if there won’t be another chance?

“He wants to know where Narnia came from. He needs to know. George is eight years old, and he won’t see nine, sir. He asked me to find out. I’m his only sister and he asked me. I have to find out for him, but I don’t quite know how, so I’ve been sitting here—on this cold boulder on your land— listening and hoping to figure it out.”

“Well, I know just the man who can tell you: my brother, Jack.”

Laughter bubbles up from under my tamped-down fear. “I know who your brother is, of course. But I hesitate to bother him.”

“Then how, Miss Devonshire, will you ever have your question answered?”

“That’s just it: the whole of my problem. Do I just make up an answer for my brother? Imagine where such a land as Narnia came from? Or do I become a nuisance and ask the author? That has been my dilemma, sir.”

“Will you come with me and we’ll ask him together?

You don’t strike me as the bothersome type.”

“Come with you? To the house?” I glance down the hill toward the shingled roof and chimney pot, where smoke coils out and rises to the sky. I’ve memorized the lines of the house, the windows like eyes and the green side door.

“Yes. You are invited by me—and I, too, live in the house. Let’s have a cuppa and warm you up. You are covered in snow.”

He doesn’t speak another word but tramps toward the house and assumes I will follow. I place my feet into his footprints and make my way past the lake frozen, silver with ice, past the dock covered in snow with tiny footprints of an animal I can’t identify, past a tree stump so large it might seat four for dinner, and onto the pathway to the green door behind a low stone wall.

Warnie stops, stamps his feet on the brick entryway, and opens the door. A pale lemony light falls out, and even if I’ve changed my mind, even if I’ve second thoughts, there is no turning back now. Golden light beckons me into the home of Jack Lewis and his brother, Warnie.

The hallway is covered in dark wood making it feel like a cave with a bench that runs along the herringbone wood floor. Coats and hats dangle from metal hooks on the wall. Dust motes float and sink in the light until Warnie closes the door and turns to face me.

“Welcome to the Kilns, Miss Devonshire. Follow me.” He takes a few steps and enters a room to the left, where the first thing I see is the source of the chimney smoke: a crackling fire on the back wall of the hazy room. I blink to clear my eyes and step back.

“Jack,” Warnie says, “we have a guest.”

“We do?”

That booming voice I heard in the lecture hall is no different here and it fills the room. My sight finds the man with that beautiful sound. He looks up with a beaming smile. C. S. Lewis sits in a large leather chair with a book on his lap and a pipe dangling from his mouth. His eyes are clear and cheerful as he looks right at me.

He stands and places his book on a side table.

“Hallo.”

He has the same look as Warnie, though perhaps a bit shabbier, if anyone asks me. His brown felt slippers are half on, half off with the backsides turned down; his shirt mussed and wrinkled; his jacket elbows worn almost clear through. “Welcome to the Kilns.”

“Jack,” Warnie says. “This is Miss Megs Devonshire. She has a most important question for you.” Warnie holds out his hand to me. “Do take off your coat and mittens, and while you ask my brother your question, I will go make us some tea.”

I unbutton my blue wool coat and remove it, slip off my mittens, and Warnie takes them from me.

Mr. Lewis smiles at me as if we’ve been friends all our lives. “Well, Miss Devonshire, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Do sit down. Now, what kind of question do you have for me?”

Mr. Lewis’s voice is so welcoming that again I find myself telling the truth as straight up as if I’ve practiced.

“My little brother, George, is eight years old, sir. He’s very sick and he asked a favor of me. He asked me to find out if Narnia is real. When I told him that of course it wasn’t, he insisted on knowing where it comes from. I’m sorry if I am ruining your lovely evening—Mum does say I can be a pest. But I’m willing to be a pest for this undertaking.”

“Dear Miss Devonshire, whoever told you Narnia isn’t real?” He taps his pipe onto a tray. He leans closer. “Who?”

“No one, sir. I attend Somerville College reading maths. I’m smart enough to know your story is made up. I just want to be able to explain to George where it comes from. When I suggested your imagination, that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to know how and . . . sir . . .” My eyes fill with tears threatening to run down my face. “I don’t know what to tell him. It feels like both life and death to me, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Have you read the story, Miss Devonshire?”

“Yes, and I know it’s a children’s book.”

Mr. Lewis laughs with a bellow that startles me.

“Our mother had a mathematics degree herself in a time when women didn’t do such things. But she was never above a good story, myth, or fairy tale.”

Embarrassment floods my mouth with a metallic taste, like I bit my tongue, and I can’t find the words to defend myself. He waits. Finally I speak with a stutter. “Sir, I’m not above it. It’s just . . . it’s a children’s book.”

“Well, well. It seems you are poorly informed, but sit, sit.”

“Poorly informed?”

“As I say in the front of the book, ‘maybe someday you’ll be old enough to read fairy tales again.’” He points to a chair. I sit, cross my ankles, and prepare to be kicked out of the warm room any minute. “I’m not sure I can answer the question for your brother, but I can tell you a story or two.” The warmth of the room begins to make me dizzy and I just stare at him.

“Did you know there will be more books about Narnia?” he asks.

“I’ve heard. But right now we only have The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

“The next will be released in autumn of next year.”

“George probably won’t be able to read that one. He probably . . . well, Mum says he probably won’t . . .” I can’t finish, the tears puddling in my eyes .

“Oh, Miss Devonshire.” His voice breaks in half with the syllables of my name. “That is tragic in a way words can’t contain. He’s only eight years old?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let us give your brother some stories to carry with him on his journey.”

“Please, sir. Anything at all that I can take home with me.”

A rustling noise interrupts, and we both turn to see Warnie holding a black lacquered tray. Atop it is a brown common teapot with three cream pottery cups and saucers. Nothing fancy here, and that brings me comfort.

He pours us a cup of tea, and the three of us sit in a circle as the fire crackles like a man coughing. I wish for sugar but the rationing prohibits it. Five years after the war, the rationing for flour and chocolate biscuits and syrup has been lifted, but sugar is still a rare treat.

I take a sip of my tea. It scalds my tongue, but I don’t flinch. My skin buzzes with nervousness.

The Lewises’ common room isn’t what I expected at all. I thought that a tutor who is likely the most revered lecturer at Oxford would have a dark-paneled chamber full of books and awards, a musty room with a ladder to the top shelves, and glass cases of rare books. But no! This is a room crowded with well-worn furniture, knitted throws, and books scattered about like toys. Blackout curtains left over from the Second World War are hanging on the windows as if the fighter planes still buzz overhead.

There are masses of books: on the tables, on the floor, on the desk at the far end of the room. The walls must have once been painted a creamy white but are now yellowed from pipe smoke.

Mr. Lewis begins to speak. “Who knows where Narnia came from?” He lowers his voice. “Who knows when exactly a story begins? Probably at the start of time. But maybe Narnia had its first seeds in a land that my brother and I imagined as children in our attic. We called it Boxen. What do you think, Warnie?”

“It’s quite possible,” replies his brother. “But there was no real magic in those stories. Maybe the magic came later. In Narnia.”

“Perhaps I was training myself to be a novelist.”

There is a large wooden desk at the far end of the room below the window, almost glowing with twilight, papers piled everywhere. “Is the original on that desk?” I ask. I’m thinking I want to tell George I saw the pages typed up or written in Mr. Lewis’s house.

“The original?” he asks.

“The original The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

“Oh, no, no. I don’t have that anymore. When I finish a piece of work I flip the pages over and start something else on the other side. After it’s all typed up, it’s gone.”

“Is that where you wrote it?” I ask Mr. Lewis.

“No. That was my mother’s desk. Mine is upstairs in my study.”

His eyes dim, and he looks at Warnie as if they are the only two people in all the world and their mother’s desk holds a secret I can’t know.

“I want to understand, Mr. Lewis. I want to understand how you can imagine something like that.”

“There is a difference between imagination and reason,” he says. “You want to understand with reason; I hear you. And I once believed they battled each other—imagination and reason—that they stood in sharp contrast one to the other.” He takes a draw of his pipe. “But that’s not why we are here right now, Miss Devonshire. Maybe that shall come to you later.”

I don’t understand what he means, but I nod anyway.

“Should we tell her about the little end room at  Little Lea?” Mr. Lewis asks, turning to his brother.  “Which does, by the by, look like the Kilns, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I do.” Warnie sips his tea and nods. “And yes, tell her.”

Then Mr. Lewis, in his charming accent and thunderous voice, begins a tale of two brothers in an attic in Ireland. He tells me the story as the fire fades and night falls hard against the windows.

 End of excerpt


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Until next time...

Happy reading!
Ricki Jill


5 comments

  1. I can't wait to find this book and read it! Thanks for the review and all the time you put into sharing some! Hugs!

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  2. Oh sounds like a great read. I will put this on my christmas list. Have a wonderful week. xoxo

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  3. This is great. I toggle with reason and imagination a lot. Mr. P. is 100% reason and logic, but I prefer the right-brain/left-brain balance. How wonderful you studied at Balliol College. You are a such an interesting woman. I love learning about you!

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  4. Thank you for the excerpt, she is indeed a very talented writer. How amazing you spent a summer at Balliol College! I am not a big fan of mythology, but I know C. S. Lewis is a powerful author.
    Jenna

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  5. Thank you for your glowing review of the best book that you’ve read in such a long time! I’m with Rita, and love learning more about you on each visit!

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