It’s probably impossible now for any narrator to be more unusual than Death in The Book Thief, but McNeal’s narrator in Far Far Away comes pretty close. Set in modern times, in a lonesome prairie town called Never Better, this book tells of Jeremy Johnson Johnson, a lonely teen whose best friend is a ghost.
The ghost, one Yaw-kub Grimm, has wandered the world for 150 years, trying to figure out why he hasn’t moved on to join his brother. He meets another wandering soul and learns that in a small town somewhere is a boy soon to be targeted by a “Finder of Occasions” (someone intent on committing evil — you don’t want to irritate this person).
And so, Jeremy and Yaw-kub team up. Soon Jeremy has a reputation for oddity — always talking to himself, able to speak several European languages he’s never studied, and ready with all kinds of obscure tales from the Brothers Grimm. Add a bed-ridden father, a disappeared mother, a feisty girl and a town full of oddballs (including an undersized deputy sheriff) and you have what could be a comic send up of fairy tales (something like Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale Detectives series).
But it isn’t. This story is dark. The frontispiece is a reproduction of a page from Holbein’s The Dance of Death: a child being dragged by a gleeful skeleton through its front door as it reaches back towards its mother.
The ghost of Jacob Grimm is itself haunted by memories and regrets, and the deaths of innocents are in the backstory of several characters.
McNeal riffs on themes and plots from several Grimm tales (Rumpelstiltskin and Hansel and Gretel are the most familiar), and gives us bits and pieces from others as Jeremy tells them, with Yaw-kub’s assistance, to his two other friends.
My one disappointment, though, was that I figured out fairly early in the tale who the Finder of Occasions was. I wanted to be wrong, to be surprised by a clever twist. Instead, I ended up being wiser than even the ghost of Jacob Grimm. I hope that’s what McNeal intended.