Janet Carter has grown up in in the shadow of Blackstock College in Minnesota, where her father is an English literature professor. She has been surrounded by the classics of literature her entire life, loves to read, writes poetry, and fully intends to become a lit teacher herself. So it is only natural that, upon finishing high school (it is in the early 1970s), she enrolls at Blackstock College herself.
She finds herself living in a triple room with Molly, a girl she immediately bonds with, and Tina, a girl who is very unlike her in many ways, that she has a more difficult time understanding and getting along with. They find boyfriends among a group of outlandish theater majors, guys who speak in Shakespearean quotes, live and breathe old plays and poems, wander about at night playing the bagpipes, wear unusual clothing, and are exceptionally skilled at evading questions about certain topics.
The novel covers all four years of Janet's time at Blackstock, her friendships and relationships, her quest to discover more about a ghost that supposedly haunts the college (throwing books from the window of the dormitory), and her studies and feelings about the courses she takes, particularly literature. Janet is passionate about what she reads, whether she likes it or not, and she applies what she learns to her own life, trying to see herself and world around her with as much clarity as possible. So when she comes face to face with a truth that seems too far-fetched to be believed, she is a bit more open to the possibilities than another college student might be. But if she's learned anything from the great writers and philosphers, it's that decisions have consequences. Soon she finds herself faced with responsibility for a decision that has tremendous ramifications, not just to her own life, but to the lives and futures of her dearest friends.
This novel is part of Terri Windling's fabulous Fairy Tale series, all of which are well worth reading. I read this when it was first published, back when I was only a few years out of college, and as an English major I'd been so steeped in the classics that are such an integral part of this book that it felt a bit like a comfortable visit back to my university days. I have to say that, rereading it, those days seemed sadly far more distant, and my memories of much of that literature have certainly faded. It made me want to reread things like "The Eve of Saint Agnes" and Shakespeare's sonnets and buy season tickets for the theater.
While Tam Lin is most definitely a fantasy novel, it is firmly set in the present (well, 1970s present), and the magical elements are wispy and atmospheric for most of the book. The characters and their relationships take the forefront, and they are engaging and believable, driving the narrative toward its compelling and magical conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the world and characters of Tam Lin, and I know I'll be back for another visit before too many years have passed. This is a wonderful comfort book, and I'm glad I have my own copy on my bookshelf.
If you are interested in the ballad of Tam Lin, you can check out this site entirely devoted to the ballad (who knew?), which offers a page with lyrics from one of the many versions, and you can also listen to this version of the song performed by Thumpermonkey and Vanessa Hawes.
This is one of the books I chose to read for The Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and - since I own my own copy (and it's one of the beloved books I refuse to lend anyone in case I don't get it back), it counts for Molly's Personal Reading Challenge, too.
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (Tor, 1991)
Other blog reviews:
Someone's Read it Already
Things Mean a Lot