Coyne, Susan: Kingfisher Days

Coyne, Susan
Kingfisher Days
Random House Canada, 2001
Hardcover 170 pages

First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 2003

Review by: Kerry Riley

She’s Her Highness, Princess Nootsie Tah, the great and beautiful, an imperious little charmer who slipped into the heart and mind of five-year-old Susan Coyne, one magical summer, some 40-odd years ago, and never left.

The story of their correspondence begins when young Susan, exploring around the family cottage near Kenora, discovers a small stone fireplace in a hedge, buried in years of leaf compost. While the rest of the family is momentarily interested, Susan is enchanted; more so, of course, when her father offhandedly remarks that there were old stories about it being the home of an elf. At an age when the chance to see a real fairy is still a permissible desire, Susan takes to tending the spot, leaving little gifts, which start to disappear. Her faith is rewarded one glorious morning when she discovers a neatly folded piece of pink paper, sealed with a wax stamp, wedged in the stones. An admonishment, written in a “spidery hand, a little blurred by the dew,” warns that the missive is “Not to be opened by any but Susan Coyne.”

It is a letter of introduction from Nootsie Tah (The Little Hummingbird, granddaughter of Nuitziton the Hummingbird, ruler of all Peru) who had been banished from her home for one thousand years for being proud, and assigned the role of public relations liaison between kindly children and the fairies.

Unable to raise a suitable degree of enthusiasm amongst her family members, Susan brings her letter to Mr. Moir, an elderly neighbour, who could nearly always be found puttering around in his miraculous garden. With the help of a dusty volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Mr. Moir’s time and patience, Susan learns about the fairy king Oberon, of the flashing eyes, and the resplendent Titania, of Queen Mab and Puck and the sylphs, kelpies, leprechauns and hamadryads.

New letters appear regularly, and Susan, tentatively at first, but then with growing confidence, begins to respond to them with messages of her own, and a summer-long dialogue develops between the young girl and the banished fairy princess.

In Kingfisher Days, Coyne, a well known Stratford Festival actress, and a founding member (with her husband Albert Schultz) of the critically acclaimed Toronto theatre company Soulpepper, has fashioned a tender memoir based on that single summer and her childhood correspondence with Nootsie Tah (alias Mr. Moir) that is magical in its simplicity. It’s a lovely creation, both physically, and literarily. The book itself is quite handsome, with cayenne-red binding and end papers, and dust jacket in delicate hues of fuchsia, peach, moss and gold, and of a size that fits comfortably in the hand. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of book in which fairy letters should be bound.

The story, comprised of a series of the letters and a connecting monologue, is told with elegant economy, and works equally well for children and adults. My 11-year old read it and pronounced it good. I concur. While children will respond to the delight of the story itself, adults may find themselves more susceptible to the alchemy at work amongst its pages, which, in mixing the gentle charms of a 5-year-old existence, a sunlit summer at the cottage, and a young-at-heart elderly gentleman willing to invest in a child’s imagination, produces a potent blend of nostalgia that will tug you back to your own early childhood, and that halcyon time when everything was still possible.

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