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The Old Country

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From the winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal comes a memorable new work, a novel of singular insight and imagination that transports readers to the Old Country, where "all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic -- and there was war." There, Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox, and she and the fox exchange shapes. Gisella's quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its shape. She encounters magic, bloodshed, and questions of power and justice -- until finally, looking into the eyes of the fox once more, she faces a strange and startling choice about her own nature. Part adventure story and part fable; exciting, beautifully told, rich in humor and wisdom, The Old Country is the work of an artist and storyteller at the height of his powers.

144 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2005

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About the author

Mordicai Gerstein

88 books65 followers
Mordicai Gerstein was an American artist, writer, and film director, best known for illustrating and writing children's books. He illustrated the comic mystery fiction series Something Queer is Going On. He won the 2004 Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration.

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5 stars
163 (30%)
4 stars
186 (34%)
3 stars
145 (27%)
2 stars
32 (5%)
1 star
8 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 99 reviews
Profile Image for Ken Mueller.
11 reviews4 followers
October 1, 2016
THE OLD COUNTRY by Mordicai Gerstein

"Gisella knew this girl. She was so very familiar that it took a moment to realize who she was. Gisella was looking at herself. She looked down. The grass was suddenly close, and instead of hands, she had two little black fox feet. Behind her she found a long, white-tipped fox tail. The fox had changed places with her. This was what Great-Aunt Tanteh had warned her of. While Gisella looked into her eyes, the fox had slipped into Gisella's body, and now Gisella was in the fox's."

Gisella had been warned by her wise great-aunt never to look into the eyes of a fox when she was a little girl. Now it is Grandmother Gisella who tells the story of what happened when she did to her own granddaughter. Set against the backdrop of a gruesome and senseless war, Gisella becomes trapped into the body of Flame the fox, while Flame inhabits Gisella's. Overtones of the Jewish pogroms adds a deepness to this Grimm-like fairy tale that is filled with hints and echoes of well-thumbed tales and nursery stories. With a forest sprite as her guide and a cat and a bear and a hen as her companions, Gisella as fox must find and save her family from destruction while the world of magic is being destroyed by the machines of war and regain her own form. That she does comes as no surprise but the ending is as unexpected as the talking hen that lays golden eggs filled with mercury. This is a welcome addition to the realm of fairy tales, one that will stand the test of time. My only regret is that Maurice Sendak did not live long enough to illustrate it. New York Times Notable Book.
Profile Image for Dakota Morgan.
2,313 reviews27 followers
April 15, 2022
A pleasant folk tale that pulls at a lot of threads without settling on any particular theme. There are talking animals, wise great-aunts, kingdoms at war, and invisible fairy realms. Chickens lay golden eggs and if you look deep enough in a fox's eyes, it'll swap places with you.

The Old Country is fun in a rambling way - definitely a better read for kids than adults, although there is quite a bit of horrific warfare. Unlike most folk tales, The Old Country seems to be pulling from World War I with it's bombs, tanks, and "aeroplanes." I was invested in Gisella getting her body back from the thieving fox, but the story moved so fast and through so many small scenes that it was hard to get a feel for the world. More a series of escapades than anything else.

I did appreciate that the rival emperor and queen at the end were equally foolish fops. I'm just not entirely sure what the point of it all was. Fun but ephemeral, I guess?
Profile Image for Jedi JC Daquis.
902 reviews42 followers
June 14, 2012
The Old Country – a story of war between the great nations of Surland and Norland, the oppression of the people called the Crags, the adventures of a fox named Flame and a girl named Gisella, the court of law headed by a white spider with a jury of birds, a dancing bear, a crystal palace, a golden egg – is just an ordinary fantasy childrens’ novel.
Profile Image for Kenya Starflight.
1,188 reviews12 followers
January 6, 2018
I've always been entranced by fairy tales, and by retellings of old fairy tales. "The Old Country" didn't seem to be a retelling of a specific tale, but rather the author creating a story with the feel and language of an old folk tale from the titular "old country"... but also mixing it with real-world events, blending the fantastic with the grit of the real world. This can be done well (the best examples I can think of are Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child and To The Bright Edge of the World and Catherynne Valente's Deathless), but while "The Old Country" had some brilliant parts, I ultimately felt disappointed in it, and feel that the real world and world of the magical didn't mesh very well.

"The Old Country" tells the story of Gisella, a peasant girl who looks too long into the eyes of a fox and ends up changing bodies with it. Gisella is desperate to track down the fox-turned-girl who hijacked her life and regain her true shape... but a terrible war sweeping through their country complicates matters. Soon war is tearing apart the worlds of humans, animals, and the Folk who have long made their home in the magical world... a world being destroyed by the bombs and guns of the human war. With a little help from a panicky chicken, a surly bear, a sly cat, and one of the few remaining members of the faerie folk, Gisella must make her way to the palace of the Emperor who started the war, save her family, and ultimately find her true destiny...

The beginning of this book starts off fairly strong, giving us a story within a story -- Gisella herself relating the tale to a young grand-nephew -- and striking a tone quite similar to the original folk and fairy tales. It paints vivid pictures and gives us a world of talking animals, mysterious faerie folk, and strange happenings that wouldn't feel out of place in a Brothers Grimm tale or one of the true "old country" tales. And I enjoyed the rapport of the various characters, both human and animal... though the villains are cartoony caricatures, over-the-top and more laughable than threatening. I know the original fairy tales didn't exactly have complex villains, but it's not a good sign when I find myself laughing at a villain rather than considering them a menace to the main characters.

Also, Mordicai Gerstein tries to blend elements modern warfare into the story, with tanks and bombs threatening our heroes every bit as much as wicked kings and wayward magic. Mixing historical elements into fantasy can sometimes work, but here I never felt that the "real" world and the world of the fantastic gelled together in any believable way, and it was always jarring when the fairy-tale feel of the book gave way to the shock of real-world warfare. There's also a subplot about the persecution of the "Crags," which feels like a stand-in for the persecution of Jews and gypsies during WWII, but this felt like a distraction from the story itself.

While a promising concept and a fairly enjoyable story, "The Old Country" is an uneven read, at times capturing the feel of an old folk tale and at other times just coming across as a muddled mess. I wouldn't consider it a BAD book, and even enjoyed it, but ultimately I don't feel compelled to recommend it to most people. It's a decent modern folk tale, but in the end largely forgettable.
Profile Image for Rachel.
868 reviews11 followers
January 30, 2018
The audiobook is absolutely stunning and this story’s parallels to our world in all its fantastic beauty and brutality questions what it means to be human in a world that is often mad.
Profile Image for Laura.
255 reviews4 followers
December 29, 2012
The Old Country has a bit of The Princess Bride feel to it as an elder relative recounts her experience as a young girl before immigrating to The New World. What listener wouldn't be intrigued when the story teller says that in the Old country, "I was a little girl, and where I was a fox." And no, not a foxy lady. A fox. +1 for the shape shifter aspect.

The fairy tale brings a clash of the real world and the magic world (both being destroyed by evil). All of the human characters are wonderfully strong and admirable, but not so virtuous or empty as to be unrelatable. The magic and animal characters were a bit hit or miss. April the chicken had a wonderful voice. I could picture her perfectly, but Nubia the cat had the best line in the whole book when responding she had become a lawyer through night classes. I kept cracking up over that. The bear and the fairy round out the posse, but they are less exciting (though they have tender moments).

The book is short (barely novella length), so the narrative can be a bit sparse. It's a bit like reading a haiku. The conservation of language doesn't detract from its beauty, but things can get a bit vague or pop up unexpectedly. There were just a few scenes that I had trouble understanding some of the action, and later, why some of it was happening.

I think The Old Country is a great pre-cursor for The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making because the theme of The Old Country focuses on is the very simple good vs. bad conflict. But what makes someone entirely bad or evil? Are we a mixture of both? How much should we allow desire to play a part of our choices?

If reading it with kids, it's not frightening (the war is mostly occurring off stage, so there is tension but not any horror) but the language may be a bit too advanced to entertain the younger grades. I think it's perfect for middle grades to read independently. And of course, any adult that still loves to surround themselves in magic.
Profile Image for Erika.
360 reviews109 followers
January 3, 2016
I was hesitant about buying this book. The edition I got was part of a collection called "Books with a message" and that put me off right away since I don't appreciate having a lesson pushed onto me while reading, but the description was compelling enough and the price very affordable so I took it home with me.

As I read I wondered where this Old Country was located and if it was going to be named as a real place. Why? Because the whole thing rang very similar to the happenings of a World War (second one, mostly). The country and its people's name was eventually given and was fictitious, which was a letdown, but you can still read between the lines: A country with a horrible dictator in which a certain population is being blamed for everything, their possessions taken and entire families sent to prison camps... Alright, Mr. Gerstein, I can take a hint.

My issue with this book is that it was too silly sometimes (but not all the time, I give it that). The goofy names and jokes were probably aimed at the younger audiences of the book but they still put me off. Also, the presence of magical beings could have been less.

I appreciated that some aspects of what a war implies were shown on the book. There are mentions of people maimed, being tortured and executed. I'm of the opinion that kids are not be kept from these themes and this seems like a good way for parents to breach such complex subject with them. Death is also a very much present theme since the beginning of the story.

Perhaps I'm being a bit too indulgent with this book 'cause I can't help thinking it's a metaphor of World War 2, yet trying to distance myself from that and judge it objectively, I think it's still an okay book: easy to read, not too childish, characters are likeable... and the ending isn’t as sweet as you would expect.
Profile Image for Lucy .
343 reviews34 followers
June 8, 2008
Gisella's family lives in the war-torn Old Country. They are simple farmers living simple lives, until her brother is conscripted into the army, and a fox steals some of their chickens. Determined to fix the little she can, Gisella promises to hunt down and kill the theiving fox. And before she goes, her Great-Aunt Tanteh warns her, "never look too long in the eyes of a fox." And so Gisella enters the woods, in which not everything is what it seems and she can understand the speech of the animals. She finds the fox - but in the forest world, the fox is entitled to a trial. While facing off the fox, Gisella looks too long into her eyes, and before she knows it, the fox has stolen her body and has run off to steal her family, as well. But this is only the beginning. For when Gisella-as-fox returns to try to win back her body and her family, she will find that they have been swept up by the war and captured by the enemy - an enemy that is destroying not just her family, but the very fabric of the world itself.

This is a beautiful book. It is a story-within-a-story, told by Great-Grandmother Gisella to her great-granddaughter. It feels like all the best folk tales and fairy tales, but touched by modern elements of war. There are talking animals and old women with magical secrets, but there is also an adventure that sometimes feels like something out of a folk tale and sometimes feels like something out of the headlines of the newspaper. It is a fable and a true story at the from its intriguing opening to its delicious end. This is the kind of story you read aloud, first to yourself and then to the people you love, and then to children. As many of them as you can find. It is the best kind of modern old fashioned folk tale.
Profile Image for Kevin.
960 reviews46 followers
February 18, 2009
Evocative story about the "Old Country" and how magic became relegated to the realm of story. Has the feel of a fairy tale from Eastern Europe.

more here
Profile Image for Janeen-san .
265 reviews
December 7, 2009
This book had such great potential and easily could have been fantastic. However, it totally failed to do so. Instead of giving it 1 star, I gave it 2, because of the interesting idea of two characters switching bodies.
That was the only thing that held my interest.
Profile Image for Heather.
986 reviews
February 4, 2014
The audio version was like listening to an old storytelling grandmother enchant you with her stories. I liked the little twist at the end, too. Since this won the Caldecott, I'd bet the illustrations are wonderful. I'll have to look at the print version soon.
Profile Image for Jacob Williams.
444 reviews7 followers
December 26, 2017
This does a good job of maintaining the mystique necessary for a fairy-tale novella to work, with lovely writing and just the right amount of whimsy. The audiobook narrator’s creative voicing adds to the charm.
Profile Image for Abigail.
105 reviews17 followers
May 15, 2017
This is one of those audiobooks that I would be happy to listen to over and over. Tovah Feldshuh was an absolutely wonderful narrator, with all her evocative voices for the different characters, and I loved Gerstein's writing style. There is magic in the Old Country, and there is magic in this story.

I liked all the characters, and while I wish that Gisella's family had been a bit more fleshed-out, I also appreciated that it wasn't important to the story. The magic and the war were both a little overwhelming sometimes, but it made sense within the context of the story.

This may be because of the author's name and my own recent readings, but I felt like the Crags were a metaphor for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. This made the story even more meaningful to me personally. (Edit: After watching the film The Promise, which is about the Armenian Genocide, I now more broadly associate the Crags with any people whom others have attempted to eradicate.)
Profile Image for R.
293 reviews
June 15, 2022
I think this book is best described as a mix between a fable and Alice in Wonderland. It's too logical to fall into the category of nonsense literature, but too absurd to count as a pure fable. It's also not based on any fable I've ever heard. Instead, it seems to take fable tropes and mix them together to create a very strange story about a young girl who switches bodies with a fox. What follows is not a lesson in apricating animals, but a story about a war that's vaguely reminiscent of WWII with it's hatred for a specific ethnic group. Yet that story is told from the perspective of a group of truly bizarre animals. It really is something that you have to experience for yourself because it's all so unique that explaining it properly would require me to spoil the story.

That being said, this isn't one that I'd recommend to just anyone. It's going to resonate with a very specific type of reader and the above description will hopefully help you decide if you're that kind of reader. I could also see it being a good bedtime story since it's relatively short and non-serious, meaning that it has lots of good stopping points. While the story does take place in a serious setting, the absurdist nature of the tale makes it so that I would be fine giving this to a child.
Profile Image for Laurie.
402 reviews19 followers
November 14, 2017
This fable isn't just about a girl and a fox who switch bodies. it about so much more. It's about the magic in our world, and how thing like war and lies can kill the magic and twist our world out of shape. It's about being comfortable with who you are and that it's okay to become someone else, or in other words, to evolve and grow up.

There's a nostalgic feel and innocence to this story that is odd. It's modern yet old-fashioned at the same time. While there are kings, queen, and peasants, wars are fought with tanks and machine guns. It's such a cool aspect. And this idea is original, even though we can see element from classic fables and fairy-tales.

I enjoyed every aspect of this novel. How different and ironic it could be, the necessities for fair trials, the different opinions. It's truly a horrifying and charming read for young ones.
Profile Image for Marcus White.
4 reviews
December 27, 2017
"The Old Country" was a good book, but my rating and opinion of it was much higher before the last couple chapters. I felt that the storyline fell apart quite a bit, with Gisella, the main character, taking on a lesser importance and not staying true to her earlier character.

The good plot buildup of Gisella's circus with bear, cat, fox, and chicken coming to the rescue of her family suddenly becoming a non-issue. And what could have been a heroic rescue by her instead became a crazy trial. The circus had little or nothing to do with the resolution, which was very disappointing. As was Gisella's change of character.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Mariah.
630 reviews1 follower
June 29, 2017
Gerstein weaves a lovely tale here. Gisella's experience and transformation in the forest is engrossing and amusing. The end perhaps borrowed too much from a few other iconic stories/movies, but altogether it is a magical and simple quest for dear family and identity in a world complicated by fools. I am looking forward to promoting this book along with Maybe a Fox by Appelt this coming school year. Both are children's novels about enchanted foxes, and both books have themes pertaining to uncontrollable loss.
Profile Image for Kamisha.
146 reviews9 followers
April 5, 2018
"In these woods, things may not be what they seem. Things change, now it's this, then it's that. Look closely, be careful, and never look too long into the eyes of a fox."

Really enjoyed this beautiful little fairytale of shape-shifters and talking animals. The setting of this story does a great job of weaving magic both in the real world and in the "invisible world" described in the story. It also eloquently describes the effects of the modern world and it's wars on the natural world and magic.
February 22, 2020
This story is told using easy language and greatly simplified concepts, as I expected of a children’s book. However, as usually surprises me with children’s books that touch on darker topics, this story dives into the gruesome realities of war that can be witnessed by a child. The story has a Pan’s Labyrinth feel to it where you are never quite sure if the fantasy is an escape or if the entire story is meant to be a tall tale.

Read more... https://samasasim.wordpress.com/2020/...
Profile Image for David Rough.
Author 13 books9 followers
April 5, 2020
This interesting fairy tale/fable has the tone of an ancient storyteller filled with insight and fantasy. I am not sure of the target audience for this book – it has a pinch of a children’s book, a shake of young adult, and an ounce of middle grade. I am not a great fan of fantasy so this was not a great read for me.

My rating is not very high because I just didn’t like the story that much. The characters were strange, the plot was rather bizarre, and the messages were obtuse. The ending was quite good and the length was appropriate for the depth of the story.
Profile Image for Cbwinget.
31 reviews6 followers
November 1, 2022
A book that made me fall in love with magical realism and fairytales. When I think of it, I think of pages full of mysticism. There is something so pure about this book: it is that moment before a child becomes an adult, an old world is transformed into the new. It is a story about a place where a curtain of magic still hangs over the world and characters living in the moments before it is drawn back.

All these years later I still think about how this book made me feel when I first read it in my school's library.
Profile Image for Christina Reid.
1,212 reviews75 followers
April 4, 2018
Part-fable, part-fairy tale, this story follows a girl as she swaps places with a fox and goes on an adventure to save her family as her country is torn apart by war. Definitely some interesting ideas and some strangely moving parts (e.g. the silent testimony of the dead at the trial) but overall felt a little disjointed as the build-up had very little to do with the resolution.
Profile Image for Corrie Hammons.
9 reviews1 follower
April 26, 2019
I really loved this book. It reminded me of old Disney movies and fables we read in school. I loved the theme of karma, and how the forest and the animals sort of strikes back because of the war. Gisella was a really lovely main character who was smart, competent, and fleshed out. Just a really, really lovely fantasy book.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
36 reviews
February 3, 2020
My 7-year-old picked this out and could easily read it. Though the reading level fit her, the subject matter was too mature. War, the main character coming upon her countrymen hanging from a tree, and many other disturbing subjects for a 2nd grader. The subject matter would better fit a YA audience.
Profile Image for Becca Hunter.
4 reviews
August 30, 2022
I enjoyed reading this book, although books with random flashbacks normally throw me off due to them just being there in the text. This book would tell you when the narrator was having one. I really enjoyed reading it but of it I had to go back and read due to the book having me think off other things.
Profile Image for Cali.
2 reviews
January 17, 2022
I like the way the characters were portrayed, and that depsite the war going on in the story this still felt like a cosy read. I think the device of the great grandmother telling the story to the grandson was unneeded/under used in the story.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 99 reviews

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