The Truth About Elves is not your grandmother’s Christmas tale. And though it follows the lives of elves and their ho-ho-ho-ing boss, the focus is on the gifts that can’t be wrapped up neatly a single bow. As its ominously dark and frosty cover suggests, The Truth About Elves, tells of a journey into the unthinkable and the long, hard road back from it.
Reimaginings of folklore and fairy tales are everywhere these days. And those that are successful offer more than just a clever twist. They offer emotional connection and catharsis. And they make good use of the clash between the tropes of yesteryear and the realities of present day (Disney’s Cruella and Godmothered, and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy come to mind). Writer Ekta R. Garg, like Harkness, enjoys opportunities for intertextual play. Harkness’ vampire lead ends his “coming out of the coffin” speech with the words “I do not sparkle,” a direct jab at Twilight’s Edward Cullin. The elves she introduces are (SPOILER ALERT: actual English-speaking human beings with human ears (sorry to all you Lord of the Rings fans who were hoping otherwise). Garg’s lead elf character Curtis’ Black Friday shade is everything I’ve ever wanted to hear on the subject. To put it another way, The Truth About Elves takes Elf’s “elf out of water” trope and gives it a deeply human redemption arc makeover.
As the book’s back cover synopsis suggests, Garg, like all remakers of myths, begins with the question “What if…?” What if the magic of the holiday season is real? What if our entire notion of what goes on at the North Pole was wrong? In the wrong hands, this line of questioning would result in a Hallmark Channel holiday movie-style “find your purpose while also finding a potential spouse” story. Or a “Free the Elves” labor rights meme. But in this Champaign-based writer’s capable hands, the result is a heartbreakingly real universe where metaphor functions as a means to an a larger, deeper outcome.
As a bartender in Las Vegas, Curtis seems to have the dream life. He’s single, lives close to the Strip, and only has to worry about when to pick up the next extra shift. No one knows the truth about what happened ten years ago, and no one knows how he spends three months every year: as a part-time elf for Santa Claus.
When Curtis went to the Arctic Circle the first time, he thought he could escape the unthinkable. Now, the anniversary of the worst day of his life is coming up, and he’s been asked to do the unbelievable. If Curtis wasn’t a man of his word, he would turn his back on the whole thing. But Mr. C. took Curtis in when he had nowhere else to go, and now the boss is calling in a favor—the kind that will make Curtis face the memory of the unimaginable.
Books like this one are made or broken by the strength of their world-building. And in The Truth About Elves, Garg’s craft shines. As I read the first few pages, I almost wondered if the level of detail was a bit too much. But as I read on, I realized its purpose and its necessity for the book’s success. When you’re talking about magic (not to be confused with Magick), grounding the reader in a tangible reality is key. If you don’t want a reader’s imagination flashing back to Hermie the Elf and his cartoon workplace drama, you need to carefully guide your readers into and through the world you want them to experience.
Garg’s land of the Artic Circle feels surprsingly familiar. The computers are slow to wake up on sub-zero mornings and it takes more than five fingers to count the layers of clothing you had to wear. Co-workers debate the pros and cons of pod-based coffee makers. Paperwork abounds in a large scale operation and shift changes require demonslayer level red-tape slashing. And more importantly, Garg well illustrates the reality that holidays aren’t happy for everyone, and that busy shifts can offer a respite from painful thoughts. For this reviewer and writer, seeing this laid out on the page was its own kind of magic.
Ekta R. Garg is skilled and heartfelt storyteller. In her website bio, Garg describes herself as a dreamer, and The Truth About Elves is proof that she is. But that is not all that there is to this pedigreed multi-hyphenate. Garg holds an MSJ in magazine publishing from Northwestern University and has some serious publishing, editing, and non-fiction writing cred to boot. In many ways she is a writer’s writer. Someone whose craft is worth studying. Many of us here in C-U even had the chance to do so during Garg’s recent Zoom webinar on dialogue hosted by the Champaign Public Library.
If like me, Christmas is not the holiday you celebrate, Garg’s combination of impeccable world-building and narrative strategy, along with her compelling and compassionate portrayal of trauma, will still draw you in and keep you immersed. As we prepare for another pandemic winter holiday season riddled with gun violence and unresolved personal and political trauma, The Truth About Elves offers respite in a world where forgiveness is an option.
Learn more about Ekta R. Garg, including how to buy your copy of The Truth About Elves and her upcoming December readings, on her website.