The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

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The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle ISBN: 978-0451450524, Roc Trade; Reissue edition (January 1, 1991)

Plot Summary:

Upon hearing that she is the last of her kind, a unicorn makes a dangerous journey out of her forest. As she travels, she finds that humans can no longer even recognize what she is, but instead think that she is a white horse. After speaking with a cryptic butterfly, she learns that the unicorns were herded away by a monstrous red bull. While looking for them, she is captured by a witch who runs a carnival. Her carnival is supposedly a menagerie of “magical creatures” but the unicorn and a harpy are the only real magical creatures as Mommy Fortuna, the carnival owner, has used illusion to make the others appear to be so. The unicorn is freed by a magician when he sees what she truly is. Schmendrick the magician and the unicorn are later captured by bandits, but subsequently escape. They are accompanied by the bandit leader’s wife. The three companions journey on and eventually find the answers that they seek, but in the end, the unicorn finds herself to be very different from the unicorn that she was.

Critical Evaluation: 

The Last Unicorn is written in such a way as to evoke a fairy tale setting and at the same time it includes very realistic elements that combine to give the book a unique feel. The descriptions of the unicorn’s forest are beautiful and haunting and the unicorn’s life there is one of idyllic peace. The unicorn is immortal and seems to be unaware of the passing of time. The red bull is a simple monster, and like a fairy tale monster, possesses no complexities. Against this backdrop is placed the very human character of Molly Grue and to a lesser extent, Schmendrick. When Molly first sees the unicorn she says “Where have you been?… Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you come to me now, when I am this?” Molly, a very pragmatic woman, has passed the age of fairy tales, but has never set aside her longing to be touched by the fantastical. 

Information about the author:

Born in Manhattan on April 20, 1939, Peter Soyer Beagle, son of Simon and Rebecca Soyer Beagle, was raised in the Bronx, New York. From an early age he was a voracious reader, and his parents encouraged him in his pursuits of the literary arts. As early as sixth grade, he proclaimed that he was going to be a writer, and during his years at the Bronx High School of Science (1955), he was a frequent contributor to the school literary magazine. It was in this period that his work caught the attention of the fiction editor at Seventeen Magazine. In his senior year of high school, he entered a poem and a story into the 1955 Scholastic Writing Awards Contest, without realizing that one of the top prizes was a college scholarship. His poem took first place, and he spent the next four years at the University of Pittsburgh.

In his sophmore year at U Pitt, one of his short stories, Telephone Call, won first place in a Seventeen Magazine short story contest. In short order, he acquired an agent, cranked out several more pieces (including “A Fine and Private Place” when he was only 19), and graduated with a degree in creative writing, a minor in Spanish, and a passion for writing.

He then spent a year overseas, returning home when he found himself enrolled by his very capable agent in a writing workshop at Stanford University, where, besides honing his writing skills, he met Enid, who would later become his first wife.

After his time at Stanford had ended, he kicked around the East Coast for a while, before deciding that his heart belonged with Enid in California, and so he and a friend undertook a cross-country motorscooter trip, which would later become the basis of I See By My Outfit. Once he had married Enid and moved in with her and her three children, he supported himself and his family as a freelance writer for years, even after the well-received publication of “The Last Unicorn”.

In the 1970’s, Beagle increasingly produced screenplays, (he continues to write for the screen to this day) while also pursuing his avocation as a folk singer, delighting audiences with songs in English, Yiddish, French and German. A live album of his songs has been released, and he once played at The Palms in Davis, CA. According to him, “singing (and dishwashing) are the only other things I’ve done for money.” Between 1973 and 1985 he performed every weekend at the club L’Oustalou in Santa Cruz, California. In 1980, his marriage to Enid ended, and in in the summer of 1985 he moved to Seattle, Washington for several years.

At some point, he evidently decided he had had enough rain, and moved back to California. (I know he lived in Santa Cruz at some point, but can’t find the exact time frame.) He now resides in Davis with his wife of ten years, the Indian writer and artist Padma Hejmadi. As he says, “I’m in the phone book.” I checked – he is. Beagle is active in the Davis community, and is a member of the “Friends of Davis” group, which recently protested the opening of a Borders Bookstore, which would put many local Davis bookstores out of business, instead of another business such as a clothing store, which the Davis community desperately needed. The Friends of Davis ended up taking the city to court to block the project – all information I can find now is that the court action is “ongoing”

Reader’s Annotation:

When a unicorn learns that she may be last of her kind, she starts a journey that will change her forever.

Genre:

Fantasy. Crossover.

Curriculum Ties:

N/A

Booktalking Ideas:

Have you ever wished that fairy tales were true?

Reading Level/Interest Age:

N/A

Challenge Issues:

Witchcraft and magic.

I would make sure that all material was purchased in accordance with my library’s collection development policy and make sure to keep a file containing positive reviews for books that I thought might be challenged. In the event of a challenge, I would actively listen to the parent’s concern and ask if they had read the book. I would then explain why the book had been added to the collection and provide with the reviews and a copy of the collection development policy. I would affirm that they are within their rights to limit what their children read, but that other parents also have the right to determine what their children can read. If all else failed, I would provide the parent with a reconsideration form.

Reasons for inclusion:

A wonderful example of a crossover title.

 

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