As Patti Callahan’s Once Upon a Wardrobe opens, it’s December 1950 in Worcestershire, England, and 8-year-old George Devonshire knows he’s not going to get better. His congenital heart disease is worsening, and there are no treatments left.
George, an ardent fan of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wants his adored big sister, Megs, to answer his question: Where did Narnia come from? Megs, who’s busy with her mathematics studies at Somerville College, Oxford University, tells her brother that she has no time for children’s books. But after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Megs changes her mind. And as George reminds her, Lewis just happens to be an English literature tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Megs finds a way to introduce herself to Lewis and his older brother, Warnie, who live together outside Oxford, and she begins to visit them and listen to their stories about growing up in Ireland and their roles in the two world wars. Megs brings these stories home to George, who in turn narrates them to the reader: “Hours in bed have taught George how to find the soft edges of the facts and drop himself into the worlds he hears about or reads of. He closes his eyes, sets his mind’s eye on the words, and floats on them like a raft.”
Once Upon a Wardrobe pivots between Megs’ and George’s perspectives. Megs takes in the Lewis brothers’ stories and slowly develops a friendship with Padraig, a literature student from Ireland. George listens to Megs and then spins out the tales for the reader. It’s a gentle novel with some beautifully cinematic images of snow, Lewis’ childhood and Oxford’s medieval colleges. Some readers may wish for a little more conflict (for instance, between Megs and her parents, or even between Megs and George), but the novel offers a strong sense of the defining moments in Lewis’ life, as well as the mythical sources for the Chronicles of Narnia. It also shows how a writer’s life can inform fiction, and how stories offer meaning in times of trouble.
Callahan is well-versed on the subject of C.S. Lewis; she’s the author of the bestselling Becoming Mrs. Lewis, an account of the American poet Joy Davidman’s midlife friendship and marriage to the author. Once Upon a Wardrobe would make an ideal companion for family book clubs reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe together.