Little Men, Paper Dolls, and Famous Authors

The Fairy Ring, or Elsie and Frances Fool the World
By Mary Losure
(Candlewick Press, 2012, Boston, $16.99)

While World War I raged across Europe, as almost an entire generation of young men died in the trenches, a group of well-bred, well-educated Londoners researched the existence of fairies. Among them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for his Sherlock Holmes novels. When two young girls in Yorkshire photographed themselves interacting with ethereal fairies and twee gnomes, Doyle and his fellow enthusiasts proclaimed the photos as proof of the little people’s existence.

In The Fairy Ring, or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, Mary Losure tells the story of the young photographers, nine year old Frances Griffith and her teenage cousin, Elsie Wright. One day, Frances saw “little men” and beautiful fairies by the brook behind the family’s house. When she blurted out her news, the adults teased her. Elsie, a talented painter, came to the rescue: she drew and cut out delicate fairy figures and photographed Frances with them. Before long, the girls found themselves orchestrating more pictures of the little folk and becoming minor celebrities in their own right. What had started as a family dispute became a news item – and one of the twentieth century’s most famous hoaxes.

Losure’s account of the cousins’ adventures reads like a well-paced, thoughtful middle-grade novel. The girls’ photos and enchanting examples of Elsie’s artwork complement her prose. The Fairy Ring raises as many questions as it answers: Did Doyle embrace the pictures because he could not imagine two young, working-class girls sophisticated enough to employ trick photography? Was Doyle a gullible man – or a desperate one? Were Frances’ fairies mild hallucinations, the result of a nervous imagination? Could she see things others could not? Almost a hundred years later, no one has solved these mysteries, but Losure’s book is a fascinating take on the nature of truth and belief and the dangers of underestimating anyone.

Dorothy A. Dahm

 

 

 

 

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