Book Review: The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill
This fantasy takes place in the town of Stone-in-the-Glen, a community that once was lovely. But the town's beloved library burned down, which touched off a series of calamities from which the town has yet to recover. The previously kind and community-minded residents have become withdrawn and self-absorbed. The mayor, a dazzling figure that the townspeople revere with an almost maniacal fervor, seems to have no interest in really helping the town. Life in Stone-in-the-Glen is getting harder and harder. People are hungry and out of work.
On the edge of town has settled an Ogress, and townspeople have taken little notice of her, as she has kept to herself. Over the years, she has quietly built herself a home and garden, taken in a flock of wandering sheep, and befriended the local crows. She is a great dreamer and thinker. She has fashioned a telescope with which she observes the town, looking for some way of befriending the people and finding a way to belong. In her observations, she has noticed that the people have isolated themselves from each other and there's not much kindness to spare. Also, the people are hungry; that, at least, is something she can help with. From the abundance of her garden and the production of her barnyard animals, she brings boxes of vegetables and baked goods to the people. She does so in the dead of night so that no one knows who their mysterious benefactor is.
She is particularly interested in the group of orphans who live on the outskirts near the shell of the burned-out library, because they alone seem immune to the unkindness plaguing the town. The Orphan House, run by an elderly couple named Matron and Myron, has always relied on the town's generosity, but the regular contributions and donations seem to have run out. The couple is hard-pressed to feed and clothe their much-loved charges, and they worry for the childrens' futures as they age. The orphans, for their part, do everything they can to alleviate the pressure on their beloved caretakers.
This lyrical, life-affirming story tackles such questions as who, exactly, is our neighbor? How can we be good neighbors? What makes a family? What makes a community? Who belongs? What about those who are not quite like us? The magical power of stories and books to impact lives for the better is a strong theme that runs throughout the tale. The mysteriously omniscient narrator and the origins of the dastardly mayor are puzzles that will be answered by the end, and I predict that it will be with a sigh, a tear, and a very full heart that you will turn the final page.