Strange Toys by Patricia Geary (Bantam: $3.50, paperback; 256 pages)
When a book is read often determines how it is read. To pick up "Strange Toys" during the Iran- contra hearings is a spooky and illuminating experience. We live in a world, maybe now more than ever before, of power. To watch those television hearings is to watch men jockeying shamelessly, crazily, for power: power to bomb, power to steal, power to shred, sometimes simply the power to be able to make an appointment with the President.
"Strange Toys" is a book about animism; about voodoo, about the power that is left to the very poor, the utterly dispossessed. (It's no coincidence that in North America, voodoo began and flourished on the island of Haiti, surely one of the most conventionally powerless countries on Earth.) It's interesting as well that "Strange Toys" is a paperback original--almost as if, well, if you could afford to buy a hardcover book, you wouldn't need the kind of irrational, underground, underbelly information this novel has to offer.
"Strange Toys" begins as Pet, a little girl-narrator here, is 9. Her sister June, fat and bossy, is 12. Her oldest sister, Deane, is 16, in a peck of trouble with the cops, and a voodoo witch. (What Deane has done exactly, why her boyfriends are making anonymous phone calls to the house, why the horror has gotten so bad that Pet's whole family feels compelled to pull up stakes and go on the run all over the highways of America, is not spelled out, at first.) All we know about Deane is that she's been "put away" for a while, and that, in fear, Pet, June and their parents must go on the road.
Few people in America have less power than a 9-year-old girl. (Just ask all those grown-up men at the Iran-contra hearings.) But in the world of fiction, or, maybe, in the fourth dimension, or in the counter -world, which we sometimes intuit (as philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was apt to do on a walk, noticing trees trying to strike up a conversation with him), in those worlds, the rules of conventional power may not obtain.
Nine-year-old Pet has a cigar box full of objects she treasures. (Didn't all of us collect some personal treasures of this sort, only to throw them away when the "rational" part of our minds kicked in?) Pet knows the objects in this box have power. They constitute a charm; they keep her from harm. Her sister June plays with a menagerie of stuffed poodles; they too have some small power. And the missing Deane has elected to go with this line of thinking: She's turned her "teen-ager's" bedroom into a full-on voodoo altar, with stuffed real animals, sand patterns, hexes of every kind. Pet finds Deane's secret book: "Ancient Magick and Secrets, the Unknown," steals it for her cigar box.
Meanwhile, the family drives aimlessly across the United States to get away from nameless terrors, and a mysterious man named Sammy, with a clam-colored suit and a pecan-colored complexion, follows them and dogs Pet's footsteps: She must give back the secret book, he reminds her, or she may end up being responsible for the destruction of her entire family.
Pet relies more and more on charms, spells, objects, simply to keep her own peace of mind. Later, as an adolescent, she muses over the strange power of voodoo and its bizarre accumulations--all those things which the poor collect in order to obtain some power.
"Strange Toys" takes the position that we live in a magic world, largely inexplicable. There is the seen world, the limited, "real" world, and the "unseen," far more interesting one. This novel falls somewhere between the cosmic subtleties of John Crowley's "Aegypt" and the laconic sub-stories in Kem Nunn's "Unassigned Territories." All these tales are interesting in that they take America, the most technological, most "real" world imaginable, and make it the basis for their hypotheses. Crowley uses our own Northeastern Seaboard, Nunn takes the Mojave Desert, and Patricia Geary all of America, most especially New Orleans and the swamps surrounding it, but also ordinary Southern California.
The second half of "Strange Toys" concerns itself with rectifying the disasters of the first. The debacle that the creepy Sammy foretold has come to pass. Was Pet inadvertently responsible? Now 16 herself, and no slouch at magic, she sets out on an odyssey to find her missing sister, Deane. Pet wants to become strong, as strong as a woman she once saw advertised out on the desert who could lift a thousand pounds. Pet, like the narrators of "Aegypt" and "Unassigned Territories," yearns more than anything, to grasp the elusive secrets of the universe.
With that kind of knowledge, Geary postulates, you don't need the other kind of power. You don't need to know how to get an appointment with the President. (Or do you? That final victory--the battle between technology and magic; between the white-coated oncologist and the befeathered witch doctor in Haiti has yet to be decided.)