When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds is a book of connected short stories that is hilarious and sad. Or maybe it’s a novel, but if it’s a novel it isn’t a typical one. There are basically three main characters. Ms. Freedman is a young, fresh-faced English teacher assigned to teach at one of the poorest schools in Texas. She is idealistic. She will change lives and save souls through the beauty of literature. Janice Gibbs is one of Ms. Freedman’s students. She is smart but a trouble maker. She has ambition, makes it to editor-in-chief of the school literary journal El Giraffe for a brief time before her penchant for trouble cause her to be removed from the position. Cody Splunk is also a student in Ms. Freedman’s class. He too is smart and in love with Janice who likes him as a friend and enlists him as a companion on a few crazy adventures. Cody also likes to write stories and there is one particularly funny one that takes place in a wax museum.
Janice and Cody’s stories pretty much move forward in time. Ms. Freedman’s move back and forth. We begin in the midst of Ms. Freedman’s unraveling. At first it seems it is all from the stress of the classroom but gradually we discover there is more to it. Janice plays a part in that stress and somehow manages to steal Ms. Freedman’s diary which we later get to read. Whether it is because she feels guilty or she is basically a good kid or a combination of both, Janice becomes a regular correspondent with Ms. Freedman after the teacher leaves in the middle of the semester for a stay at Bridges, a psychiatric wellness center.
Bridges is one of those horrible chirpy places that turns regaining one’s mental health into a capitalist system of earnings and debt. Approved behavior earns points and you can buy things with your points from cookies to release from the program. Other behaviors take points away and Ms. Freedman quickly finds herself in debt for refusing to comply with the sickly blandness and for always referring to her doctor as Dr. Bin Ladin.
Meanwhile Janice is getting into and out of trouble at home, at school, and in the family way. But she keeps in contact with Ms. Freedman and Cody keeps in contact with Janice, all of them trying to save each other without knowing how but doing the best they can anyway. And that is what makes this book so wonderful, it has heart. Despite the quirky, dark hilarity, everyone is reaching for salvation in one way or another, and trying to save others too:
‘Have you been bargaining?’
‘I’ve been bargaining. If they find her safe, I have to go say a rosary every day for the rest of my life.’
‘I don’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t believe in bargaining. … I always bargain though.’
‘I thought she could do it. I thought if she tried harder. If I tried harder.’
‘Some things you can’t do by trying.’
‘What else is there?’
Early in the book Ms. Freedman in one of her journaling therapy entries writes about a story Dostoevsky tells in The Brothers Karamazov about a woman who only did one good thing in her life, she once gave a turnip to a beggar. The woman dies, goes to Hell and cries for mercy. Her guardian angel reaches out a turnip to her to see if the one good deed is strong enough to lift her out of Hell. The woman grabs hold and is yanked from the flames. But someone has grabbed her ankle and someone else grabbed the ankle of the other person and so on. The woman looks down and sees the chain of souls. She begins to kick and thrash, trying to get free of them and in the process the turnip breaks and she falls back into Hell.
This story is countered at the end of the book with some revisions. This time a woman gives an apple to a hungry girl. The angel extends the apple to her in Hell, she grabs on and as she is pulled from Hell, someone grabs her ankle and a long chain of souls is formed. The woman sees them all and holds onto the apple even tighter, holds on for all she is worth and Hell is emptied.
The title of the book comes from the first chapter. Ms. Freedman gives the class a writing assignment. The prompt is to name their favorite mystical creature and what they see as the greatest socio-political problem of our time, then write a one page story in which the mystical creature resolves the problem. The chapter is made up of the students’ stories. They range from “How the Minotaur Changed the Legal Drinking Age to 16” to “How the Giant Squid Made Me Stop Being Pregnant” to “How Pegasus Created World Peace.” Writing assignments, therapy journal entries, emails, letters, short stories, even a chapter composed of recipes from the fundraising cookbook of Methodist Women of Piggot, Kentucky (Dark Night of the Soul Food, Render unto Cesar Salad), all serve to tell the story and make you laugh as well as want to cry along the way.
I found out about this book thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations. If you are looking for something a little off the beaten path, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a good one.