The Good Neighbors: The Missing Fairy Mother
The series’ books are subtitled Kin (2008), Kith (2009), and Kind (2010), which are all archaic synonyms for family, friends, neighbors, and types of people sharing similar characteristics. The trilogy’s main title, The Good Neighbors, is a metonym for fairies. In Scottish and Irish folk traditions these siths, or sleagh maith (the good people), are ‘subterranean inhabitants’ who live in communities ‘with aristocratic rulers and laws’ (Kirk  2008, 47, 52). W. B. Yeats refers to them as daoine maithe ( 1991, 1). In traditional Irish and Scottish folklore, fairies are humanoid supernatural creatures who love music and dance, fear the Bible, iron and fire, and are especially known for their ability to shape-shift and for their propensity for kidnapping. Women, and in particular mothers, are often said to be taken by the fairies so that they can nurse and tend to fairy children. Seventeenth-century Scottish minister Robert Kirk advises, ‘put bread, the Bible, or a piece of iron, in women’s beds when travelling to save them from being thus stolen’ ( 2008, 51). The fairies are believed to substitute human babies with changelings and to kidnap mothers and place fey3 look-alikes in their place. The changelings fail to thrive and eventually die, while their human counterparts live among the fairies in the otherworld or under the hill. Robert Kirk ( 2008) recounts one such Scottish incident from the late 1600s of
a woman taken out of her child-bed and having a lingering image of her substituted body in her room, which resemblance decayed, died, and was buried, but the person stolen returning to her husband after two year’s space, he being convinced by many undeniable tokens that she was his former wife, admitted her home and had diverse children by her. (60)
The stolen or missing mother of Irish and Scottish folktales and legends involves the trafficking of women between ontological realms, the world of humans versus the magical world of fairies or spirits, sentient animals, and supernatural beings. Shape-shifting, alternate identities, transformation, doubles, and Doppelgangers are uncanny story elements in such narratives. Holly Black draws explicitly on these narrative traditions as an artistic resource to enhance her neo-gothic tale with a sense of mysticism and irrationality. She inserts three traditional Irish tales and one well- documented historical case of fairy exorcism as subplots to provide background stories for characters in The Good Neighbors. These include the story about a swan maiden who becomes enslaved to the man who has stolen her feather cape, the story of a man abducted by fairies and betrayed by his wife who in his absence had married someone else, and the story of the child who played in the cinders with an elf-boy and refused to say his real name for fear of getting abducted. Black also refers to a well-documented case of fairy exorcism in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895. Bridget Cleary’s husband Michael believed that she had been abducted by fairies, and that a changeling was left in her place. Michael, aided by a number of relatives and neighbors, attempted to drive the fairy out of her body over several days by submitting her to gruesome acts of torture by fire.4 While none of these side stories are essential to The Good Neighbors' overall plot, they attest to Black’s endeavor to situate the story within a folklore tradition5 that unsettles, and possibly questions, the stability of motherhood and marriage as social institutions. In counterpoint to the European folklore traditions and monocultural discourse thus evoked, Naifeh’s illustrations show a multi-ethnic cast of characters. Although there is no mention of race or ethnicity in the textual narrative, the images show that race defines the characters’ identities and structures their relationships.
The Good Neighbors is set in West City, a non-specific affluent American community surrounded by mountains and forests. The story begins in medias res with a missing mother. Rue Silver’s mother Nia6 has been gone for three weeks. She left after discovering that Rue’s father Thaddeus had an affair with his old flame, Amanda. Thaddeus, a college professor specializing in folklore, is shortly thereafter accused of killing one of his female students. Amanda, who is a college history professor, steps in to take care of the now motherless Rue while her father is arraigned. Rue persuades her boyfriend Dale and two other high-school friends to help her find her mother and to clear her father’s name. She begins to see creatures that others cannot see7: fairies, elves, wood sprites, fauns, and bodies encased in trees. She discovers that her mother is not human at all, but a fairy, and that her maternal grandfather, Aubrey,8 wants her to join him in his otherworldly realm. Aubrey is the powerful king of fairies. Since Thaddeus by comparison is weak, Aubrey looms large as the patriarchal figure against whom Rue struggles. Naifeh draws Aubrey as young looking, very tall, North European, and aristocratic, while Thaddeus in comparison is shown as a short, bearded, wrinkled old man, sitting forlornly on the sofa in his underpants after Rue’s mother has left. Aubrey harbors sinister plans to take over the human world by turning people into trees and cover all manmade structures with vines and foliage. Rue refuses to assist him. When her mother unexpectedly returns home, Rue suspects that something is not right. It turns out that the returned mother is a fey look-alike, who dies and is buried, and that Rue’s real mother, Nia, remains in the fairy world with no intentions of returning to the world of humans again. Rue also discovers that the student whom her father is accused of killing was a swan maiden, one of the fairy folk, and that she had persuaded her own brother to kill her after she had become enslaved to the man who had stolen her feather cape. The killing of kin continues. Aubrey tricks Rue into killing him so that he becomes a wood spirit and Nia can take over as ruler of the otherworld. Meanwhile, Amanda is mobilizing an army of volunteers to fight off the fairy invaders. Since Thaddeus is the man of contention that pits Nia against Amanda, Nia offers him as a prize if Amanda will back down. Rue, however, interrupts these negotiations by outwitting both humans and faeries. Using the magic of her grandfather’s secret weapons, she separates the fairy-held territory of West City from the world of humans. Thaddeus remains with Amanda in the human world where a magical fog will make everyone forget what happened. Rue will live on in the fairy world with her new lover Tam alongside her fairy queen mother Nia.
Throughout these ordeals, Rue’s growth towards independence from her parents is accentuated by her own brushes with forbidden sexual pleasures and compromised fidelity. Although she apparently is devoted to her high-school boyfriend Dale, she sleeps with Tam, a youth from the otherworld, while Dale is seduced by cannibalistic river fairies. The teen- aged couple’s troubling sexual infidelities mirror the murky duplicity of their elders. Considering that this trilogy is aimed at young adult readers, the representation of love triangles that get duplicated from the parental to the younger generation offers a remarkably dark twist on the script of the missing mother because it questions the constancy of marital vows and shows matrimony as an entrapment for women, especially women of color. For example, Naifeh’s illustrations show Dale’s Mexican-American mother stuck in poverty and endless toil with a lazy husband. When she threatens to slash her wrists with the jagged edge of a coffee mug imprinted with the words ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, Dale’s father says, ‘Your mother’s just being dramatic. Don’t take it too hard’ (Black and Naifeh 2010, 13).
The illusion of the happy marriage in Rue’s family haunts not only Rue, but also Amanda. When Nia has disappeared and Thaddeus is arraigned for the murder of his student, Amanda stays at their home to look after Rue. Naifeh’s mise-en-page includes a portrait of Rue’s smiling parents on the wall—the emblem of the happy couple—and within the same panel shows how Amanda, humbly positioned lower than Rue, tries to explain why Thaddeus could not have killed the missing student. The contrastive image of a sad and confused Rue next to the picture of her parents in a loving embrace also suggests that the ultimate failure of their marriage makes Rue question its validity as social institution and hence her own monogamous commitment to long-term boyfriend Dale.
The visual differences between Amanda and Nia echo how the experience of black and white motherhood in the US historically has taken different turns. As Lindal Buchanan (2013) argues, ‘women’s particular social locations and identities... have profound impact on [the representation of] maternal experiences, practices, and expectations’ (19). The medium of the graphic novel makes visually explicit how race and gender factor into that. Nia may be a fairy from the otherworld, but she is drawn as a stereotypical pin-up: a long-legged, slim blonde with large breasts and a narrow waist—and white. Amanda, on the other hand, whom Rue’s neighbor refers to as ‘dumpy’ (Black and Naifeh 2008, 105), is represented as short, heavy- set, dressed in frumpy clothes—and black. Amanda’s character echoes both the stereotype of the all-embracing, submissive Southern ‘mammy’ and the tough, fist-pumping black female civil-rights-era activist. She is both substitute mother for Rue and ‘community othermother’, Patricia Hill Collins’ term for black women who serve double duty as caretakers and community organizers. Collins (1994) observes that the black community othermother facilitates ‘group survival, empowerment, and identity’ (59), a task Amanda embraces in The Good Neighbors, where she organizes and supervises an army of college students to combat the invading fairies.
Nia is dead, but not gone. Consequently, Rue begins to reflect on her own liminal betwixt-and-between existence as part fairy, part human, and she looks to her mother for answers. Nia’s disappearance, fey reappearance and death, and subsequent reappearance as queen of the fairy folk make Rue question what kind of a mother Nia is. Nia’s flimsy presence, unearthly beauty, and self-centered detachment from husband and child contrast to Amanda’s robustness, average looks, and selfless commitment to Rue and her father. Without the images, the reader might think of Amanda as a home wrecker, or femme fatale, who lures Thaddeus away from wife and child. But the images counterpoint that interpretation. Naifeh draws Nia as an ideally slim, white, youthful fairy mother, with long, blonde mermaid tresses, dressed in flowing gowns, and Amanda as a middle-aged, heavy-set black matron dressed in conservative clothes. However, in counterpoint to the textual narrative, this representation changes when the women transcend from mothering in domestic space to become community leaders. Naifeh accentuates the visual contrast between mother and othermother when the two women take political leadership roles in the battle between humans and fairies.