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By Georgeby Wesley Stace
Synopses & Reviews
In the illustrious history of the theatrical Fishers, there are two Georges. One is a peculiar but endearing 11-year-old, raised in the seedy world of '70s boarding houses and backstages, now packed off to school for the first time; the other, a garrulous ventriloquist's dummy who belonged to George's grandfather, a favorite traveling act of the British troops in World War II. The two Georges know nothing of each other — until events conspire to unite them in a search to uncover the family's deepest secrets.
While the dummy lays dusty, silent, and abandoned, his young namesake sets out to learn about his dead grandfather's past as a world-famous ventriloquist, his magical powers, and their family's curious history. Weaving the boy's tale and the puppet's "memoirs," By George unveils the fascinating Fisher family — its weak men, its dominant women, its disgruntled boys, and its shocking and dramatic secrets. At once bitingly funny and exquisitely tender, Stace's novel is the unforgettable journey of two young boys separated by years but driven by the same desires: to find a voice, and to be loved.
"Singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, writing under his given name Wesley Stace (Misfortune), crafts a British performing family's saga filled with wit, warmth and imagination. George Fisher is 11 years old in 1973 when his mother, Frankie, enjoying a successful run as Peter Pan, delivers him to Upside Boarding School. George misses his family, particularly his 93-year-old great-grandmother Evangeline, who for many years performed as a ventriloquist — as did her son, Joe. Under the watchful eye of the headmaster, George learns to escape student responsibilities by cheating, throwing his voice and befriending the groundskeeper, who gives him ventriloquism how-to books. George's school-days narrative alternates with another memoiristic voice from 1930, that of Joe's dummy, also called George. While George the schoolboy leaves Upside, eventually finding work in the family business, George the dummy accompanies Joe on the road to entertain troops during WWII. In different eras, boy and dummy each finds his own voice, plus some understanding of a world full of trickery and illusion. Family secrets revealed are not much of a surprise, but Stace amasses enough gently ironic humor (including sly references to Harry Potter and David Copperfield), emotion and insight to carry his voices beautifully." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"How many alter egos can one man have? Novelist Wesley Stace, known to some as John Wesley Harding, is a British folk musician living in Brooklyn, N.Y. (The pseudonym comes from a song by Bob Dylan, who in turn got it from a glamorized American killer.) It should come as no surprise that this is a novel about finding a voice. 'By George' is an original and moving coming-of-age story... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) about an English boy growing up in the 1970s. In fact, two members of the Fisher family, both named George, contribute to the narrative, and one of them happens to be a ventriloquist's dummy. The dummy belonged to George's grandfather, a celebrated ventriloquist during World War II. George unearths some family secrets and discovers a few difficult truths about himself through his encounter with the dummy. The magic of that act is delicately poised. As the story is being told in the first person, are we listening to the dummy or to the ventriloquist? To the vaudeville artist or George the grandson, who himself shows an interest in ventriloquism? If we want to be literal-minded about such questions, an answer does lie in the discovery of Grandfather's diary, hidden in the hollow tubes of the dummy's legs. The diary reveals that Grandfather, in shame and mortification, retreated into a silence that he could break only by speaking through his dummy. Only the dummy can bear to speak, to express anger, to admit to humiliation, to face the slings and arrows of the world. Young George faces the same dangerous mental instability, and it will take strength of will for him to avoid the same fate. What is glorious about this novel is that, along with a nice plot involving absconding fathers and hidden family connections, it examines elusive questions about the nature of the artistic voice. It's an issue that challenges every writer and songwriter: what voice to tell the story in, how to find that voice, how to sustain it. And which voice to move on to for the next artistic project. Because writing a novel or a song or a poem is an act of ventriloquism. Why does a writer write? 'Perhaps, like your grandfather,' a therapist suggests, 'you felt that no one was listening to you and you had to disguise your voice in order to be heard.' And perhaps one writes because there are, after all, ways of articulating the unspeakable, of giving expression to the unutterable. When the vent (stage shorthand for ventriloquist) tells his dummy to 'get back in the box' for our amusement, this is the rational and repressed mind speaking, terrified of the anarchic possibility that the dummy might say something threatening, subversive or secret — the purpose of all good art, in other words. Stace knows this and offers the reader great insight into the psychology of creativity. 'Writing is all that I have,' says Grandfather in his diary. 'It keeps me alive, as it always has. It is how we imagine not being lonely.' There's a line to fly straight to the heart of any writer or composer. Even with a good ventriloquist, there might be a few moments when the audience sees his lips move: stuff that betrays a little self-consciousness. So it is with Stace. Doubting either himself or the originality of his material for a moment, he mentions reductive Hollywood devil-doll treatments of ventriloquism, only to dismiss them as if they might contaminate his more subtle approach. This only alerts the reader to the fact that the story of the unhinged vent is an old one, but it doesn't matter a jot when the voice is new and the treatment of that material is as fresh as this author's. If the voice falters elsewhere, it is in failing to differentiate adequately the two eras in which the vocalizing takes place. There isn't enough period flavor to distinguish the 1940s from the 1970s. Sometimes I had to remind myself of where we were on the timeline. But these are minor flaws, and ones made by a skillful author on his way to becoming a very fine one. 'By George' is an entertaining and daring work in which wooden dolls can bleed and break hearts. This is not a novel that will willingly go back in the box. Patrick Anderson is on vacation." Reviewed by Graham Joyce, whose most recent novel is 'The Limits of Enchantment', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Stace...has a real talent for re-creating a variety of settings, from battlefields to boarding houses to the backstages of vaudeville. This novel is an original, and it ends with a most satisfying revelation." Library Journal
"Characters spring to life in the words of the sardonic dummy, whose pointed comments about his wacky family make the book a hoot to read and beg the question, 'Who's in control, the puppet or the puppet master?' Book groups will enjoy sorting out this one!" Booklist
"By George is one of those rare works of fiction with an essential triple helix — it's funny, it's clever and it's perfectly woven together with story. If writing is how we imagine not being lonely, as Wesley Stace suggests, then his conjuring trick as a writer is that he brings a large crowd along with him. This is a wonderful follow-up to his debut novel, Misfortune." Colum McCann, author of Zoli and Dancer
"In his odd but intermittently compelling novel about four generations of British variety performers, Wesley Stace nonchalantly mixes genres, voices and prose styles from several centuries." Los Angeles Times
"By George" unveils the fascinating Fisher family--its weak men, its dominant women, its disgruntled boys, and its shocking and dramatic secrets. At once bitingly funny and exquisitely tender, Staces novel is the unforgettable journey of two boys separated by years but driven by the desire to find a voice.
About the Author
Born in Hastings, educated at Cambridge, Wesley Stace is also known as the musician John Wesley Harding.
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