Back to School: Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

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Tam_Lin_by_Pamela_DeanIt’s time for school to start up again–I think you can tell something’s in the air even if you haven’t noticed that the ramen shelves are depleted at the grocery store or the floods of paper and pens on sale at any place with a cash register. Of all things, going to get school supplies was one of my favorite parts of fall, possibly outweighed only by going to buy books when I hit undergrad. For someone who grew up with very limited amounts of spending money, the license to buy books as a necessity rather than a luxury was a gift.

School is all about rituals in our culture; you need no evidence other than the flux of “first day” and graduation photos that quickly appear across all our social media. There’s pomp and circumstance, and then there’s the memorializing of everything from the contents of lunchboxes to the stickers on notebooks. One of my own rituals of recent years is to reread Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.

Dean’s novel isn’t a bildungsroman, and it’s neither YA nor adult, and for the longest time it doesn’t even seem like fantasy. In some odd way, that latter bit is one of the book’s greatest gifts, in that the world is sufficiently immersive that it only makes sense for a young woman, in her freshman year at a small liberal arts school somewhere in the midwest, to wonder about ghosts as much as Shakespeare, papers, and birth control pills. Rather like Jo Walton’s Among Others, not only is the mundane world as fantastical as the supernatural one, but the ease and grace of the prose allows you to view them as extensions of one another rather than walled realities.

Janet Carter is also probably one of the most personable characters in all of contemporary literature. She’s the friend and college roommate many of us probably wish we’d had: in love with literature itself, likely to declaim Keats and Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and taking up several shelves in her dorm with paperbacks of Tolkien and Heinlein. The opening chapters in which she makes the acquaintance of friends, roommates, boyfriends, and professors reads like any geek’s social wishlist–if only it were that easy for all of us to identify our kindred spirits!

Rereading it recently, I was struck by how I always remembered the opening chapters so vividly in comparison to the closing ones. An academic novel, the story is spread across four years of quarterly school terms, but the first takes up at least a third of its pages. The ending isn’t rushed exactly, it merely passes by in a blur not unlike that of finals, and yet it still ends with a quiet, happy denouement. The title speaks for itself; if you know the old Scottish ballad that is the source material, you can easily guess how things turn out. The book is like those rare courses some of us are lucky enough to take–the ones you don’t want to end.

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