Mark Helprin’s Swan Lake

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When I was about twelve, my mother checked an interesting book out of the library. She returned it unread but not before I’d opened it and read the magical first paragraphs about a god-like white horse wandering loose through the snowy streets of New York. I did not read the book all the way through until I was a graduate student but in the earliest hours of the morning, through the years, I’d find myself half-dreaming that opening scene. The book was Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

Long before I returned to Winter’s Tale however, I came across another Mark Helprin book at a house where I was babysitting. During the kid’s naptime, I lost myself in a lyrical, luminous retelling of Swan Lake illustrated by Chris van Allsburg. On a pad of paper in the kitchen, I copied my favorite passage, about places and how vastly they can differ from each other, about “charged landscapes that can put together broken hearts or at least keep them from shattering to pieces.”

The book was a storybook but it was also wisdom literature, not afraid to digress and effloresce, offering proverbs and asides that resonated among my own inner musings, making music there. To escape the cage without breaking it. Watchers of the sky and riders of horses. Love for all is love for none. Those who are pure. Those who suffer. Those who wait. Hippopotamuses and pins. The pictures were both crisp and misty, magnificent and simplified. Their unexpected perspectives set butterflies of delight dancing in my stomach, like pans in an IMAX theatre.

A sad tale’s best for winter. Helprin’s Swan Lake had a regal dignified sadness that I appreciated as I moved out of childhood. The indestructible love that can exist between parents and child against all odds was theme I was later to find repeated in his fiction for grown-ups. But I read Swan Lake at the perfect time for me to read it. It helped me understand the delicacy of escaping the cage that threatens to close around a child without breaking it. And so helped me to make that same so important escape.

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-Mrs. Aldertree

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