“It’s amazing how you can be who you are even without your proper body! How could I be me without my own whiskers? Without my own tail? And yet here you are, you’re a fox, but you’re still Gisella. It’s a mystery.”
The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein is a slim novel that reads like an expanded fairytale, and tells a unique and beautiful story. It is really more of an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but it touches on the plot point of “losing herself” (and then finding herself) so well I wanted to give it its own entry.
Gisella lives with her family in an unspecified Old World country on the brink of its first modern war. With her brother conscripted by the army, she volunteers to go into the woods and hunt the fox that has been stealing the family’s chickens. Once there, she finds herself in the midst of a strange trial, with animals as judge, jury and lawyers, to decide if the fox is indeed guilty enough to be killed for her crimes. Gisella ends up staring too long into the eyes of this fox, against her great-aunt’s many previous warnings, and they switch bodies.
[SPOILERS] Gisella returns home, as a fox, only to find it abandoned. Her family has all been arrested as spies and brought to a prison camp. With the help of a magical creature named Quick (who helps her, in true fairytale fashion, because she had previously helped him), and her cat Nubia, she sets off on a quest to rescue her family and get her own body back from the fox, Flame. Along the way they also pick up a grumpy bear as a companion. (Gisella also does spend some time literally underground, sleeping and hiding, since she is after all a fox.)
The animals get into the prison camp by pretending to be a circus act, which the emperor is fond of. They arrive just as he is meeting with the leader of the opposing side in the war, and suddenly all the other animals return for yet another trial – that of the emperor and queen, for the destruction they have caused with their war. Their power is overthrown (though not exactly in favor of anything better), and Gisella’s family escapes to the New World.
Before they leave, Gisella and Flame meet once more, face to face (Flame, I think, is the adversary here, having stolen her body and taunted her along the way, even though it’s not as clear-cut as many GU stories). Flame relents and offers to switch them back, but in a surprising turn (especially given the narrative set-up at the beginning of the book), Gisella chooses to remain in fox form.
“I forgive you, and wish you well, Flame. I am a fox of the Old Country.”
She realizes that she has changed so much on her adventure that she no longer wants the thing she’s been fighting for. And in fact, truly knows who she is now. Which is a very fitting end for a Girl Underground.