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Tiger Lily

Review

Tiger Lily

“Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case.”

Thus begins Jodi Lynn Anderson’s TIGER LILY, a dark and highly original take on J.M. Barrie’s PETER PAN centering on one of Neverland’s most overlooked and enigmatic characters: a native girl called Tiger Lily.

Adopted by the village shaman Tik Tok, Tiger Lily gets her name from the flower that grew over the place where she was found. Her origins are a mystery. Bullied by the villagers as an outsider, she quickly learns to defend herself by becoming the fastest runner with the sharpest aim. But none of the village boys like to be beaten, and she doesn’t excel at the skills the women prize. Left to wander alone, she takes pity on a shipwrecked sailor. Though the villagers fear he carries with him an aging disease from which Neverland has always been free, she ignores their superstition to nurse him back to health.

“That child will spend her life alone,” one of the village elders says. But one day, around her 15th year, her betrothal is announced to Giant, a wealthy villager, who does not love her but craves her status and the ability to prove he can dominate her.

"Despite some of the plot conventions, like arranged marriage, TIGER LILY surprised me with its emotional depth. In a genre dominated by romance, the risks Anderson takes in exploring the darker side of first love are acutely observed and cathartic."

Angry and confused by her father’s choice for a mate, Tiger Lily protests the decision until her father explains that it was made long ago when he first brought her to the village. The price of her acceptance was an agreement that she would marry the son of one of the village’s elders once she came of age. Tik Tok tells her that he was always able to protect her before, but her involvement with the “Englander” has exposed her to further suspicion from the villagers and he is no longer able to prevent the alliance. “It was my job to protect you,” he says. “And I didn’t.”

Goaded by the knowledge of her impending marriage, Tiger Lily runs wild. A chance encounter in the woods brings her into contact with Peter Pan. Though she knows she shouldn’t be sneaking off to spend more time with the Lost Boys --- mistrusted and avoided throughout Neverland --- with Peter she finds a kind of freedom she has never known. It isn’t just his affection and acceptance, but also a life absolutely free from the growing weight of obligations and responsibilities she finds at home.

But Tiger Lily’s idyll becomes tangled --- not only by her impending marriage, but also by the pirates who are hunting both her and the Lost Boys; by her father’s sickness, which follows the arrival of English missionaries; and by Wendy Darling, who soon takes first place in Peter’s heart. What follows is a tale of heartbreak and betrayal, and the unexpected and irreversible knowledge of growing up.

Anderson’s Neverland is recognizable as the wonderland from Barrie’s original, complete with pirates, mermaids and fairies. But Anderson develops some of the dark undercurrents of Neverland, following its characters through to the inevitable consequences of human behavior. The Lost Boys are filthier and more feral than they appear in Barrie’s book or numerous film adaptations. Placing them all at the ages of early adolescence, they have the habits and hygiene of unsupervised teenagers and behave more like a vicious street gang than cuddly orphans. The pirates are raging psychopaths filled with all manner of tics and psychosis, the principle among them being Hook, who has spent every ounce of his humanity in an endless search for a cure for aging, and Smee, a murderer who kills in order to feel empathy for his victims. The mermaids are dangerous, ready to drown anyone they catch, while the fairies --- often cruelly strung up as lamps --- function as tiny observers of the larger world around them.

TIGER LILYis narrated by Tinker Bell, who carries the name given to her by Peter. Helplessly enamored with Peter, she is nevertheless first loyal to Tiger Lily, whose life unfolds for us through Tinker Bell’s observations. Unable to communicate through speech, she reads the minds of the people around her. What results is a book of surprising insight about knowledge and innocence, what it feels like to fall in love, and what it means to finally grow up.

Says Tinker Bell:  “As you may have guessed already, Peter had a soul that was always telling itself lies. When he was frightened, his soul told itself, ‘I’m not frightened.’ And when something mattered that he couldn’t control, Peter’s soul told itself ‘It doesn’t matter.’ So while I trained my ears and tried to listen hard to him, I couldn’t always make out where he was, or what he felt. And so each time he let Wendy come a little closer, I didn’t see what it meant, or how it would end.”

Pop culture has made much of Peter Pan. The book was originally adapted from Barrie’s smash stage play and has become a nursery favorite often touted as a celebration of childhood innocence. In most versions, PETER PAN is a story about Wendy Darling coming of age, practicing her maternal skills in Neverland before she must return home and take on genuine responsibilities, while Peter remains “the boy who never grew up.” Over the years, the tale has taken on a darker tone. We now have “the Peter Pan syndrome,” a name given to adults who refuse to take on adult responsibilities regardless of their biological age. But TIGER LILY is more than just PETER PAN from a different point of view. Anderson does not shy away from the cruelty of ignorance --- the shadow twin of innocence --- or the consequences such callous behavior can have on human hearts and lives.

“Peter loves to make promises,” says Maeryn, a mermaid who was once Peter’s favorite. “He has the best intentions of keeping them. It makes it worse, somehow, that he doesn’t know how to. He thinks he’s a nice boy, that’s the worst part.”

Peter’s indifference to the way his actions affect others sets into motion the events that follow. Anderson doesn’t just capture the soaring swoops of first love, she captures the desperate feelings of first love gone wrong. Perhaps most painful are the scenes where Peter learns of Tiger Lily’s impending marriage (“You’re worthless to me,” he says as he stalks away) and Tiger Lily learning she has been replaced by “the Wendy bird,” whose kindness and gentle optimism are formed by a life free from conflict.

As Tinker Bell puts it: “Wendy’s heart beat for Peter immediately --- there was no slow growing, no dark distrustfulness like Tiger Lily had… no hesitation. Wendy didn’t believe in situations she couldn’t bend to fit her, so there was no need to be distrustful. She had the blissful confidence of someone who had never been put in a pot of turkey broth to die.”

Shocked that the Lost Boys love the mothering Wendy showers upon them and hurt by Peter’s faithlessness, Tiger Lily allows herself to be used as bait in a heartbreaking betrayal. I won’t give away the ending, but you might be surprised by who stays in Neverland and who goes at the end of the book. Despite some of the plot conventions, like arranged marriage, TIGER LILY surprised me with its emotional depth. In a genre dominated by romance, the risks Anderson takes in exploring the darker side of first love are acutely observed and cathartic.

If, as Tinker Bell says, our lives are just stories, “because we’re only what we’ve done and what we are going to do,” I think a case can be made for the Neverland that lives inside us, often arrested at moments like first heartbreak. Years later, we still remember these moments with an immediacy as though it had just happened, wondering how our adult lives have become something youth never quite imagined. “It’s not for lack of loyalty…” Tinker Bell says of those moments when Tiger Lily looks back. “It is just that she was fifteen once for the first time, and Peter walked across her heart, and left his footprints there.”

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on August 19, 2012

Tiger Lily
by Jodi Lynn Anderson