Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean

Of the entries in my Old Favorites week, urologist this is probably the latest-read of them. I first heard about this book because it was part of the Fairy Tales series, published by Tor Books with Thomas Canty covers. I’m lucky enough to have a copy of that hardback, signed by the author, even. Pamela Dean is a part of a Minnesota-Twin Cities f/sf author group that has produced a good deal of innovative books in the urban fantasy genre, as well as fairy tale retellings and high fantasy. This novel is a retelling of the Childe Ballad “Tam Lin”; a version of the lyrics is available here.

Janet Carter is a freshman at Blackstock College in Minnesota; the author herself has said it’s an analogue to Carleton College. It’s set in the early 70s, which makes the clothing interesting, and “The Lady’s Not for Burning” fairly recent. (It’s a play by Christopher Fry, extensively referenced in the text.) Janet’s two roommates are Molly and Christina, and early on they meet a group of young men, including Nicholas Tooley, Robert Armin, and Thomas Lane. As time passes, they become friends, but Janet starts to notice strange things. The Classics Department, for example, is rather weird. The head of the department is almost . . . worshipped. And what’s with the party they have at the end of the year?

Bright readers might guess that Janet Carter is the Jennet or Janet of the ballad, and Thomas Lane is Tam Lin. Although the book is based on the ballad, and the ballad involves fairyland and magic, the majority of the book is nonmagical. Janet experiences a little more than three years of college throughout the course of the book, and she goes through many very familiar collegiate experiences (at least, to a college graduate): new random roommates, interesting RAs, picking classes, room draw, boys, picking a major, studying, cafeteria food, random bagpipers . . . what? They didn’t have random bagpipers at your college? My college is on its second in ten years!

Anyway, Janet is a sort of intellectual Everywoman of college students; Nick is actually the focus of the love story for a good deal of the book. He’s a boy-next-door type, but Thomas is the holy grail, really. He’s tall, blond, absolutely gorgeous, theatrical (but straight), talented, generally nice, and popular. The cast of characters is fairly large; some might get mixed up in the process, but luckily it’s not always that important to differentiate between two random classmates of Janet’s. Because there are so many characters, nearly anyone should be able to find someone they can recognize from their own lives in the book.

Another amazing aspect in the book is the amount of literature referenced. It isn’t pretentious — well, sometimes the characters are being college-pretentious, but it doesn’t feel as if the author is merely referring to the books to prove that she has a degree in English. She’s using them as details to add verisimilitude to Janet’s experience, and although I wasn’t an English major, Dean inspired me to read many of the works she mentioned. Some of them, like the aforementioned “The Lady’s Not for Burning”, remain among my favorites today. I think I remember seeing the book criticized as being unrealistic — people don’t act like that, or talk like that. Well, they do, in my experience. Theatre majors quote; English majors fight about Oxford commas; at three in the morning, it’s perfectly acceptable to run around campus with a flashlight, trying to find a piper.

I read this book just before college, and then read it again probably ten times in the first week of college — because I recognized so many things that happened to Janet. Like the previous entries that defined me at the age of ten, and me at the age of twelve, this book was me at eighteen. I’d recommend this book greatly to anyone, but specifically to new college students in the liberal arts. 5/5 stars.

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