In London's Hyde Park there stands a statue of a young boy playing a flute. The well-known figure commemorates that world-famous icon of eternal youth, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

Building on Barrie's timeless tale, Karen Wallace's new novel Wendy succeeds beautifully in creating a history for the famous Darling children prior to their adventures with the ageless leader of the Lost Boys. In doing so, the author presents us with the provocative idea that maybe, just maybe, Peter Pan wasn't the most interesting character in Barrie's book.

In Victorian London, children of upper-class families were meant to be seen and not heard, and that is precisely the lot of the young Darlings. Wendy Darling, a precocious, strong-willed nine-year-old, lives in fear of Nanny Holborn, a harsh, unlovable housemaid who terrorizes the children. Always making mischief, Wendy longs to go to her uncle's house in the country, where her mother's brother and his wife are the affectionate, caring adults her own parents fail to be. Meanwhile, there's Thomas, a simple-minded boy who lives close by. Thomas' remarkable artistic ability makes up for his lack of intelligence, and Wendy is strangely drawn to him. One night, Wendy sneaks out of the nursery to spy on an elegant dinner party given by her parents. What she witnesses that evening makes her wonder if she really knows her mother and father at all. Soon, a series of events is set into motion that changes her life forever, leading to a family mystery and new adventures for the Darlings.

Wendy stands on its own as an elegant narrative with an unforgettable heroine an intelligent, determined girl coming of age in turn-of-the-century London. The book is a wonderfully rendered Victorian-era period piece brimming with authentic details new-fangled motor cars, incredible aeroplanes and intrepid suffragettes. Wendy Darling is as believable as any character you'll find in fiction. Ah, but was she a real person? Was Peter Pan? All you have to do is believe.

James Neal Webb writes from Nashville.

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