Once we grow up we are able to acknowledge the basic cruelty that lies at the root of many (if not all) fairy tales: think about Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping off their toes to make the crystal shoe fit; or Snow White’s stepmother asking the hunter to bring her the girl’s heart – the examples are endless. I believe that such brutal details might serve as a subliminal reminder that the world is not fair and that children should not trust blindly. Still, there are some tales that seem to point only to lightness and fun, especially in the more widely known, and edulcorated, Disney movie version, as is the case of the story of Peter Pan: I remember watching some scenes with my nephew when he was little, and even potentially frightening situations – like being chased by a crocodile – were turned into amusing and non-threatening vignettes.
Now imagine my dismay once I encountered Ms. Henry’s version of Peter Pan, a character I’ve always been lukewarm about but never actually disliked, even though his name is connected to the syndrome shown by men who refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their lives, so that it shines a less-than-bright light on the character. Lost Boy, on the other hand, gives us an interpretation of Peter that is as chilling as it is engrossing, and I was surprised at the intensity of the hatred I felt for him reading this novel. This is indeed the kind of story that can’t leave you unmoved…
The story is told from the point of view of Jamie, Peter’s very first companion on the island and for quite some time the only one: he, like the other boys who will later follow, was lured to Neverland with the promise of a life of endless fun and games, free from hunger or pain. In theory, the boys Peter brings over are escaping from an existence of Dickensian drudgery, but in reality it’s not always so: there is a recurring fragment of memory that haunts Jamie and that will later on showcase Peter’s duplicity with dramatic starkness. The real reason the boys are brought to the island is the fulfillment of Peter’s narcissistic tendencies, his need to always be at the center of attention, admired, adored, idolized: it would not really be such a terrible life if he didn’t drive his companions to reckless escapades and bloody battles with the neighboring pirates…
It’s trough Jamie’s eyes that we see behind the façade of never-ending play and fun: the island is a dangerous place, inhabited by ravenous crocodiles that have nothing in common with their playful counterparts in Disney’s movie, then there are the Many-Eyed, a kind of huge arachnids whose blood is poisonous and burns like acid; or the pirates might resent the boys’ more daring escapades and retaliate with violence. As if that were not enough, there are always injuries and illness to contend with, or the violent Battles pitching boys against each other as Peter enjoys the spectacle like a Roman emperor of old, and which has caused the death of many young people over the years: it has fallen to Jamie to bury them, as it falls to him to care for the newcomers and to see that everyone is clothed, fed, and in good health. Yes, because Peter is extremely careless of his playmates, just like a child who unthinkingly tosses aside a toy that does not interest him any more, or is broken: as long as they provide the willing and cheering audience he craves, he’s the genial host, the enthusiastic companion, the charismatic leader; but as soon as someone stops being entertaining, Peter is quick to adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” policy, when not leaving the various island’s dangers work for him in removing the nuisance from the equation.
As the story opens, Peter has quickly tired of his new acquisition, five-year old Charlie, a child far too young to be taken away from the Other Place or to participate in the boys’ increasingly dangerous escapades, and therefore boring and useless according to Peter’s rules. Jamie has become his guardian and protector and Charlie has developed a sort of hero worship for him that does not agree with Peter’s worldview, and what’s worse, the time and energies Jamie devotes to the newest arrival are time and energies he does not give Peter – a truly unforgivable sin. The picture that emerges from Jamie’s point of view is indeed disturbing, with Peter appearing at best as a self-centered narcissist and at worst as a dangerous sociopath, a jealous self-declared god: as the story progresses the information we gather becomes more and more unnerving, destroying every notion we might have held until that moment about Neverland and Peter’s entourage.
On the other hand, Jamie comes across as a very sympathetic character and one that’s quite easy to love: in a group of people who have run away from dire situations and unloving families, Jamie takes on the role of a parent and, in some measure, of a leader who possesses all the qualities that Peter lacks. What’s fascinating is that as Jamie’s disaffection mounts, estranging him from his former friend, still he harbors a measure of guilt about those feelings, as if his growing consciousness of Peter’s shortcomings were a betrayal – that is, until he realizes that his loyalty was one-sided and the other boy did nothing but take and take, without giving anything back. What happens at that point is extraordinary, because Jamie realizes his body is growing, that he’s leaving the eternal childhood in which he was frozen by the island’s magic: each growing spurt is accompanied by pain – and that’s another fascinating metaphor, indeed – brought on by the increasing awareness of Peter’s dual cruelty and carelessness, not unlike those of an escalating serial killer.
This loss of innocence, of that childish vision that prevents us from seeing the nastier side of life, is the most poignant element in Lost Boy, and even the realization that Jamie is fated to become Peter’s arch-enemy, Captain Hook, isn’t as heartbreaking as the chain of losses he must endure. To say that he left a deep mark on my imagination would be a huge understatement indeed.