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5 Quotes From Victor LaValle’s The Changeling That Will Make You Rethink the Fairy Tale Genre

Victor Lavalle published The Changeling in 2017, and it's already become a modern classic in fantasy.

A train in New York City subway system
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  • Photo Credit: Nic Y-C / Unsplash

From the title itself, readers would assume that Victor LaValle’s iconic story is a fairy tale. If you didn’t believe that before opening the book, the fact that LaValle quickly and clearly announces it in the first line (“This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike”) will only cement that expectation. 

And in many ways, The Changeling is a fairy tale. But a quick Google search of the term “fairy tale” might lead readers to expect a story of magical lands far away or an idealized, stylized version of reality. And aside from the (spoiler alert!) changeling child aspect, much of LaValle’s tale is grounded in a reality that is as familiar to those of us reading it today as it is to his characters during the time they lived. 

In The Changeling, LaValle’s whimsical and quirky style translates well to a dark, eerie version of New York City and the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. Throughout the novel, the struggles and tensions his characters experience very closely mirror those of his average reader in 2017 (the year of the book’s publication). 

Apollo Kagwa and his wife Emma grapple with racial biases and stereotyping that black people in even one of the most progressive and diverse cities in the country face on a daily basis. After the birth of their son Brian, the grip of postpartum depression on Emma’s world is strong enough to tug at the heartstrings of mothers young and old. And of course, no reader in modern times would be a stranger to the frustrations and fear generated by internet trolls. 

However, LaValle takes each of these struggles just one step further, pulling their roots out of the firm soil of reality. He does so in a delicate manner that reminds readers we are all just teetering on the edge of real life and fairy tales, sanity and insanity (at least as defined by social convention), at any given moment. 

Every last word of The Changeling is worth readingBut here are a few outstanding moments where LaValle expertly tugs at the tense line between reality and fairy tale. 

5 Quotes From Victor LaValle’s The Changeling That Will Make You Rethink the Fairy Tale Genre

1. “One hundred thousand tons of garbage filled the sidewalks, spilled onto the streets. Rats ran laps alongside morning joggers. Rubbish fires boiled the air. The five boroughs had been given up for dead.”

Let’s be honest: Anyone who’s ever lived in New York City would be quick to say this doesn’t feel much like a fantasy to them. Garbage and rats have become so ingrained in the national image of the busy, bustling city’s landscape that they have even been the subject of memes and jokes at New York’s expense.

As a long-time resident of New York City himself, LaValle knows this. He takes something innocuous—the grime of a famously dirty city—and makes it just that much more horrible. Trash spilling onto the sidewalk? Sure. Rats running everywhere? That can be understood. But rubbish fires, and the boroughs left for dead? That’s the image of a wasteland, a slightly more battered New York than the one we want to believe exists. A New York where anything awful—including baby-snatching—can happen at any moment.

2. “There in a stalled A Train in the bowels of the earth, Emma bled and bore down.”

While there are probably few things more horrifying to a pregnant woman than giving birth on a stalled New York City subway train, this sentence doesn’t necessarily feel all that disconnected from reality—at least, not at first glance. 

But in my read-through of The Changeling, nothing stood out quite as much as the drama of baby Brian’s unceremonious arrival on an A train trapped between tunnels. 

The tension, the anxiety with which Brian enters Apollo and Emma’s world mirrors the tension and anxiety with which he is later removed from it. It’s a perfect allegory for the events around which the entire story centers. And what’s more fairy tale than an allegory?

3. “Leaving her baby so soon after birth felt like stepping out of an airlock without a space suit.”

Again, an emotion that many parents can probably identify with. The need to go back to work, held against the inexorable pull of your newborn child who needs you. 

Throughout The Changeling, LaValle proves that he’s an expert at dropping these little nuggets into the story. He weaves in sentences, thoughts, and ideas that at face value seem entirely normal, but in light of everything to come, carry with them such a sinister edge that it’s hard not to feel unmoored. 

It’s moments like these, within the seemingly innocuous mindset of a young mother, that readers of this fairy tale wonder where it all went wrong. What could Emma have done, if anything, to prevent the horror awaiting her in the following pages?

4. “History isn’t a tale told once, it’s a series of revisions. Would it be so surprising if once there had been witches there, too?”

This quote, written against the backdrop of Apollo reimagining his mother’s home community of Jamaica as it might have looked many years before her arrival, encapsulates the quintessential moment when, for LaValle’s main character, the story moves from reality to fairy tale.

He begins to believe that perhaps Emma wasn’t just another new mother grappling with postpartum depression. Perhaps she was right, and something much more supernatural was happening, right under Apollo’s nose. Now, he must answer the age-old question of a fairy tale: how to address his new reality.

5. “He wanted to reach out and touch her cheeks or her nose to be sure this was really her.”

Apollo has finally come to the moment that every protagonist reckons with, if they’re lucky, at the end of a fairy tale: With his reality so drastically changed, can he even trust the very existence of the person in whom he used to feel the greatest comfort?

Even here, at this pivotal moment, LaValle’s fairy tale remains grounded in reality. The reason Apollo feels uncertain about Emma’s presence is because she is shrouded in darkness. As with every part of The Changeling, once the metaphorical or very literal darkness dissipates, Apollo is back to reality, back with the love of his life. 

Featured photo: Nic Y-C / Unsplash