Of Monsters, Grief, and Yew Trees

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
— Patrick Ness

My mother, like all mothers, would drag my brother and I to those stores where mothers take their children to be tortured.

Buildings with large open interiors stocked with large rolls of fabric and high shelves of glass plates and crystal glasses.

And here's where, as an adult, I begin to question my mental stability.

When I was a kid, I regulary entertained fantasies of destruction. (Should I publically admit this? Could I even now be institutionalized?) As a little boy, I felt I would find some sort of emotional satisfaction if, in the midst of my utter boredom, I could take a baseball bat to the entire china department, shards of broken glass clinking to the floor. Follow this demonstration of utter devastation by watching yards and yards of paisley fabric go up in smoke.

Yikes.

I sincerely hope and pray I'm not the only kid who ever thought these horrid, ruinous thoughts. Of course, I never acted upon my fantasies. Which is good. And, perhaps, why one doesn't end up in a group home for troubled children.

Part of my juvenile delinquent imagination is captured by Patrick Ness' children's/YA novel, "A Monster Calls" - set to be released in theatres as a major film in January of 2017. Of course, Ness' story is about a boy who also entertains destructive fantasies, but for much deeper and more significant reasons than being bored in a fabric store. This beautifully written and deeply moving tale is about Connor, a young boy dealing with the grief accompanying his mother's terminal illness. His companion in grief is a tree-like monster, who (as the absolutely perfect first line of the story explains) "showed up just after midnight. As they do."

A little about Patrick Ness, for those who may not be familiar. He writes exquisitely-crafted young adult ficiton. I was enthralled with his "Chaos Walking" series, in which Ness created an emotionally poignant world with no excuses or explanations. It's a world simply is, as is true with the best created worlds. The characters who live their lives within this world kept me turning pages. Ness has a new novel called "The Rest of Us Just Live Here", apparently about normalcy. Though I've not read this one, I am confident that Ness can turn a novel about about the mundane into something compelling and lavishing to read.

Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?
— The Monster

In "A Monster Calls" Patrick Ness tells an honest, emotionally layered story. Yes, there's a monster involved. A pretty cool living yew tree monster (more on that in a moment). But the Monster only helps Conner to understand the compounded grief and pain he is experiencing. And this is really the tale's heart: a young boy dealing with grief. The monster tells Conner stories helping him to see reality in ways that he couldn't see before. And yes, there is also destruction involved and, while understandable, it proves to be not ultimately healing. "Now that, said the monster, is how destruction is properly done." The other characters are fully developed and meaty. The mother and grandmother feel like real people who the reader has met at some point.

Yew Mythology - from Britian to North America

This story is set in England, where yew trees are commonly found in church yards. Some of the most ancient Yew trees are estimated to be up to 4000 years old. It's no wonder that magical and transformative properties are associated with these massive conifers. Old yew trees take on monstrous shapes, which I am sure became inspiration for the monster in this story. English Yew-lore is a finely woven tapestry of pagan legend and Christian symbolism.

I see you
— Lily

Yew trees are not as common in the US as they are in their native England. There is a rare species found in northern Florida, and a more common species found in the Pacific Northwest. Because of this, they do not have quite the entertaining folklore in North American folklore as they carry in the British Isles. The more populous cedar tree tends to carry more tree-lore here. There is an interesting Makah First People's creation legend involving the origin of the yew tree. Otherwise, little is said about these gnarley giants. Many an American suburban home is garnished with a miniature version of the yew, also known as the mountain yew. Or, more commonly, the juniper.

A Fitting Tribute

The genesis of "A Monster Calls" is not Patrick Ness. He is the finisher. Ness gives a lovely and fitting tribute to the stories origins in the preface. Siobhan Dowd was the author of several YA novels published in her lifetime - and posthumously. "She had the characters, a premise, and beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time". Siobhan died from breast cancer in 2007. Ness honored her life in finishing this story for her - and did a fine job of it.

The Jim Kay Illustrations are gorgeous. 

The Jim Kay Illustrations are gorgeous. 

A Monster Calls is atmospherically illustrated by Jim Kay, of Harry Potter fame. I recommend getting a physical copy of this book for the illustrations alone.

Grief, anger, destruction, change and redemption: this story of a yew tree monster and a young boy, confronting pain no kid should ever have to confront, is rich and emotionally satisfying.

Read the book before you see the movie. Purchase a copy at your local, independent (not corporate) bookstore, because independent bookstores need your help to exist. If you do not have an independent bookstore near you, purchase a copy through one of the links here at folkloristic.com, as that will help support this project.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to check out the Podcast version.  In fact, Subscribe to the folkloristic podcast.  You'll love it.  Also be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get a FREE Troll Report.  

Links: 

Purchase A Monster Calls on Amazon

Check out the Chaos Walking world, by Patrick Ness

Movie Trailer for "A Monster Calls" 

Patrick Ness Author Page on Amazon

Bernie Anderson

Home, Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Married to one, father of two. I am a pastor, a researcher, a writer and like to make stuff. I'm pretty good with a computer and a camera, and make a mean cup of coffee.