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CARPE LIBRUM: Down the rabbit hole

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For fans of “Alice…” seeking another way to enter her world, “After Alice” provides an unexpected door.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story on our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new weekly book column. Each week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well.

For our inaugural edition, it seemed fitting to dive down the rabbit hole with one of the most famous protagonists in literature: Alice herself.

After Alice: A Novel
by Gregory Maguire
Harper Collins 2015, 273 pages

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll
1865, 96 pages

Gregory Maguire of “Wicked” fame offers “After Alice” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the UK publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Maguire catapulted to fame with his retelling of the L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” story from the perspective of Elphaba—the Wicked Witch of the West in “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” (1995). Like Baum he continued the series from other character perspectives and penned adaptations of “Cinderella,” in “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” (1999), “The Christmas Carol” in “Lost: A Novel” (2001) and “Snow White” in “Mirror, Mirror” (2003), from minor characters’ voices.

afteraliceWith “After Alice” he might have chosen his most minor character yet: Ada, who appears in a grand total of one sentence in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: “I’m sure I’m not Ada,” she said, “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! She knows such a very little!”

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” originally published in 1865, grew from a story told on a boat trip Carroll took with Alice Liddell and her sisters July 4, 1862. It is one of the most well-known children’s stories in the world, now translated into over 170 languages (Vladimir Nabokov did a Russian translation). The highlights have become trope unto themselves: the Cheshire cat, the Caterpillar, the Queen of Hearts and her red roses, and popular lines, like “eat me, drink me.”

What Maguire shows us is the havoc Alice left behind her in Wonderland, as discovered by her friend, Ada, who has mysteriously fallen into the otherworld. Of course, this is Maguire; he’s only partially interested in retelling the story of Wonderland. He is more interested in using it as a framework for exploring the worlds of the day.

Deftly and clearly we tour the Oxford of the 1860s: the geography, the social structure, the philosophical struggles between science and religion, and the appearance of an American abolitionist who has adopted as his son an escaped slave.  While we follow Ada’s adventures of her searching for her friend, Alice (who, frankly, seems oblivious to the responsibilities of friendship), Maguire shows us life back above ground at Alice’s home. Here, her sister teeters on the cusp of adulthood and reads a book without pictures, as the household notices Alice’s disappearance. Class and gender distinctions ruled Victorian England, and Maguire, always enamored with the underdog, focuses on such points with his characterization.

Ada is the most unlikely of protagonists: She is not pretty, smart nor charismatic, but the opposite in every way of her only friend, Alice. Yet, she, too, encounters the Caterpillar, White Queen, Cheshire Cat, Duchess, Rabbit, and Queen of Hearts.  However, her encounters are not nearly as interesting as what is happening with Alice’s family and Ada’s governess back in Oxford.

The plot that captured me and drove me to finish the book was the struggles of day-to-day life—not Ada discovering and navigating Wonderland. Sadly, Ada is just too boring. But Oxford in the 1860s—that’s fascinating. Readers see the subtleties of rules governing every interaction, the beauty of the city, the constant discussion of the weighty topics of the day, as Maguire brings all of it to life with intensity and reverence.

Though “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is ostensibly a children’s book, it remains a favorite of readers of all ages, partially because of Carroll’s wit and imagination, and partly because his writing is so clear and compelling. The additional logic and math puzzles hidden in the text continue to delight teens and adults.

Maguire’s book is none of that: It is not a book to read because his use of language is so beautiful or captivating. There are no poems to compel generations of school children, like “Jabberwocky” from “Through the Looking Glass,” the sequel to “Alice…”. Though Maguire does debate Darwin’s discoveries (which play heavily in “Jaberwocky”).

Will “After Alice” be read on the scale of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” 150 years from now? Probably not. For now it is not a replacement for, nor a continuation of Alice’s adventures, but an homage.

If anything, “After Alice” succeeds because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to be: a loving look at the very pedestrian people Alice left behind—people who contemplated the weightiest matters of the time, though she was too young to understand. “After Alice” shows us just what an impact one person can have on the world—both in Oxford and Wonderland.

For fans of “Alice…” seeking another way to enter her world, “After Alice” provides an unexpected door. As a stand-alone book, it is interesting. As a companion and celebration of the adventures of a 150-year worldwide love affair, it strikes a chord.

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