A journalist and folklorist explores the truths that underlie the stories we imagine—and reveals the magic in the everyday.
“I’ve always felt that the term fairy tale doesn’t quite capture the essence of these stories,” writes Emily Urquhart. “I prefer the term wonder tale, which is Irish in origin, for its suggestion of awe coupled with narrative. In a way, this is most of our stories.” In this startlingly original essay collection, Urquhart reveals the truths that underlie our imaginings: what we see in our heads when we read, how the sight of a ghost can heal, how the entrance to the underworld can be glimpsed in an oil painting or a winter storm—or the onset of a loved one’s dementia. In essays on death and dying, pregnancy and prenatal genetics, radioactivity, chimeras, cottagers, and plague, Ordinary Wonder Tales reveals the essential truth: if you let yourself look closely, there is magic in the everyday.
Folklorist Urquhart (The Age of Creativity) draws parallels between her personal life and folk tales in this spirited memoir. She relates feeling plagued by ghosts and hauntings from her childhood, such as the entity she named "Something's the Matter" after having night terrors. Later, she saw glimpses of her deceased half-brother (seeing the dead in passing strangers, she notes, is a common experience of grief). Japanese legends soothe and romanticize life's adversities, such as the tale of Urashima Taro, which Urquhart connects to her aging father's dementia, or "Amabie," a mermaid she calls upon for protection during the Covid-19 pandemic. The postwar Japanese custom of honoring loss in temples like "The Hall of Compassionate Sleep," where the products of miscarriage were buried, validates her grief over a pregnancy loss. Her forthright talk of hauntings can cross "into taboo," she admits, recalling the time when another mother at the playground pulled her child away and urgently whispered to her child: "ghosts aren't real." But Urquhart is quick to assert the folklorist maxim that "it's up to the storyteller to believe or doubt their experience." Some musings run long, but the mix of heady and magical will be spellbinding to memoir readers with a ready sense of wonder. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic.