Once Upon a Wardrobe
© 2021 Patti Callahan
Once Upon a Wardrobe takes us to Oxford, 1950, where a young woman named Megs nervously approaches a tutor of English, C.S. Lewis, and asks: where did Narnia come from? She asks not for herself, but for her dying brother — a young boy born with a bad heart, who is largely confined to bed and who lives through the stories she reads to him. With a smile, Lewis invites her into his office….and begins to tell the tale. Once Upon a Wardrobe is both the story of Lewis’ life, and that of a cool logician’s wakening to wonder as she grapples with the decline of her beloved young brother. It is a terribly sweet novel that invites us into the life of an extraordinary mind.
This is not the first time Patti Callahan has drawn inspiration from the life of Jack Lewis; her Becoming Mrs. Lewis introduced me to the author, so when I learned she’d created something else along those lines I didn’t hesitate to launch into it. There are two stories being told here, one framed inside the other; as Megs seeks out Lewis (stalking him, even), and subsequently comes to know him and his brother Warnie personally, then relates their reminiscences about growing up to the bedridden George. The series of conversations begins with a question — whence Narnia? — but the answer isn’t an easy one, which is why Lewis essentially tells his life story to Megs in a series of walks and cozy office chats. (It’s good timing for him, actually: a publisher has been nagging him to write an autobiography.) Although Megs struggles with Lewis’ roundabout answer, her debates with her brother, Lewis, and a new friend, an Irish lad who studies medieval literature, break the crust of her near-disdain for anything but math and science and allow her to see the importance of imagination and story to the human heart.
Having recently read several Lewis biographies and revisited a couple of his works, I was impressed by how directly Callahan draws on Lewis’ written words — in letters and essays — in his conversations with Megs, working them in rather naturally. It’s a beautiful tribute to a man who took the pain of of his early life and forged it into a story that has inspired readers of all ages for generations.