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Beauty is found in 'Stolen Child'

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In The Stolen Child, an 1886 poem by William Butler Yeats, a fairy -- one of the mainstays of European folklore -- lures a child away from the only world he has ever known.

This work by the great Irish poet is the inspiration behind a captivating tale of the same name by first-time novelist Keith Donohue.

Legend has it that fairies, or changelings, take the place of children, living out their lives while the kidnapped boy or girl is consigned to a life of perpetual childhood among a tribe of like immortals.

In Donohue's story, 7-year-old Henry Day runs away from his home in a 1950s American town. Angry at his mother, he flees into the forest, where he is snatched by a band of changelings.

These ageless children had themselves been kidnapped and subjected to a ritual rebirth, flung into a river and plucked out to live among the fairies and await their chance to rejoin the human race by taking the place of another child. The changeling who has waited the longest becomes the next one to magically reshape his or her features and take the place of a child who seems unhappy or isolated.

And so it happened that a changeling who had lived in the forest for 100 years became Henry Day. And Henry Day became a changeling renamed Aniday.

The alternating narratives by the false Henry and Aniday are told two decades after the switch.

The changeling who became Henry Day is tormented by fragmented memories of his birth family, immigrants from whom he was stolen in the mid-1800s. He is still that original boy in ways that confuse his new family, especially his musical genius, which survived a century in the woods.

Aniday also is troubled by fading memories of his former life. Though he comes to consider his companions his family, he spends 20 years trying to learn who he once was.

Both are fascinating tales. Donohue paints a vivid picture of American life from the 1950s into the 1970s and the pressures on a boy who, in addition to not being entirely human, is growing up in the Vietnam War era, when attitudes toward sex, drugs and patriotism were undergoing a sea change.

Aniday's story is set in the cool forest where the forever children live off the lush land except for forays into town to steal supplies and perform random acts of mischief. (Finally, an answer to the missing-sock mystery.) It is a world threatened by civilization, an encroachment that pushes the present and former Henrys toward each other.

Both sides of this story are poignant and beautifully told, a credit to the poignant and beautiful poem that inspired them.

The Stolen Child

By Keith Donohue

Nan A. Talese, 319 pp., $23.95

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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