Yolen cautions against taking the family of "Fallen Angel" as representative of her own, pointing out that the children of the story are two girls and one boy, whereas her own family has two boys and one girl. On the other hand, she notes that Maddy is the name of her granddaughter and that the mother of the story repeats some of what she would say to her own children when they interrupted her work. ("The children all thought Mommy was slightly deaf only when it suited her.") Also notable is that the mother is a writer and the father is a college professor, as is the case for Yolen and her husband.
How does one portray an angel that is representative of goodness, eternal yet innocent? Writers for millennia have found it much easier to portray absolute evil than absolute good, so God and his angels have often been portrayed as remote from human feelings and austere. Yolen faces the problem of creating a sympathetic angel while retaining its state of grace and remoteness from evil in "Fallen Angel." Her solution is to first depict the supernatural being with its supernatural powers while giving it a crucial weakness that is in keeping with its extraordinary abilities: "Angels are ordinarily immune to the terrible cold of space, but featherless, he was freezing." The angel endures the bitter cold of airless space and then the heat of plunging through the earth's atmosphere. Certainly it is supernatural, and the reason it has been wounded is supernatural, too, having flown too close to the light.
When Courtney, Judson, and Maddy find it, it is almost perfect, except for its ruined wings and a smudge of mud. Yolen builds her presentation of the angel with phrases such as "The angel had opened one eye. It was sky blue and perfect." Almost everything about the angel is perfect, and it has intimidating powers of perception beyond what humans normally have:
What the angel saw with that one eye was this: a twelve-year-old girl with hair the color of a mouse's back, who had the day before sneaked a drag on a cigarette and hated it, but lied to her friends saying she liked it a lot, and worried more about that lie than the one puff; a ten-year-old boy, his hair cut in a rattail, who had called his older sister a forbidden name the night before to his friends and was feeling awful about it because actually he secretly admired her; a girl age seven, in braids, who had taken her sister's favorite comb but had only the slightest guilt associated with it since she was planning to give it back, so the angel could not tell the size or shape of the comb. All this the angel saw in a blink of his perfect eye.
Not only does this passage carry the burden of describing the children, it reveals the angel's ability to see within a person, to know what a person is feeling and thinking about. Further, the angel's voice can evoke remorse for wrongdoing; at a word from the angel, Judson immediately regrets a harsh word spoken to his sister.
In spite of his great powers, the angel finds himself at the mercy of the three youngsters. Times have changed since it last visited earth. It tends to sing when it talks, but the children have trouble understanding what the angel is saying, although the singing has a mighty emotional punch. The angel "closed his perfect eye and heard inside the language that they [the children] had been speaking"; it finds...
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that English words "lacked the beauty of Latin, the power of Hebrew, the familiarity of Aramaic or Greek. But they were all these children knew, so they would have to do."
The incessant debating by the children, something encouraged by their parents as a form of free inquiry, is a source of frustration for the angel: "The angel was beginning to suspect that Earth had changed in the millennia since he had last visited. In those days belief had been a constant, and children had not argued or spoken out of turn, and he had had wings that worked and did not hurt." Confused by both the English language and by the behavior of the children, the potentially austere angel becomes sympathetic; whatever the unknowableness of its angelic nature, it can be understood on an emotional level. Even when it points out that "I am insubstantial," the supernatural otherness of being insubstantial is tempered by the vulnerability it brings to the character.
The angel's nature is also tempered by its childlike qualities. It is mercurial, quick to respond without thinking: "Suddenly the angel hated all change." It also finds itself beholden to the good nature of others, helpless on earth without guidance, and "The angel occasionally sniffled, more like a child than a grown-up." It even has, for its own supernatural reasons, a common fear: "The dark is coming and I am afraid, not being used to darkness." It is even joyfully grateful when it discovers that its new wings work, but lest the angel seem too earthly, Yolen drops reminders of its essentially mystical nature. For instance, "neither of them [the parents] could see the angel"—it is invisible to those who will not see it. It remarks that "I have always worn this gown"—its unsoilable gown is a part of the angel, inseparable from it. When trying to make the angel comfortable with the coming of darkness, Judson says that going to sleep will help the angel, "because once you're asleep, it doesn't matter... The light I mean," his remark elicits this response:
"The light," the angel said in a voice as hard as adamantine, "always matters."
Lest we forget, the angel is of Heaven and God, and however childlike, it perceives earth in the issues of light and darkness that define Heaven.
Of the children, the eldest, Courtney, is the leader, although all three children use their imaginations to help save the angel from fading away, and it is Maddy who cleverly suggests that hangers might substitute for wooden dowels. They remain steadfastly headstrong youngsters throughout "Fallen Angel," debating what they should do. On the other hand, the angel brings them an important gift: By working together to save the angel, the youngsters learn that they can work together to solve problems, and they learn that they can unite to help someone in need and even have the smarts to figure out how to help someone vastly different from anything they have experienced before. Thus the children mature in significant ways during the short period the angel is with them.
They even behave unselfishly, setting aside some of the bitter emotional baggage the angel first saw in them. When the angel offers a reward, Courtney declares, "We didn't do it for the reward." The angel knows this but is determined to give the youngsters something. Maddy asks for "a new Barbie," Judson wants "a Pentium. And Windows 95." Yet, what they receive is one of the angel's mysteries: The gifts requested are '"Not within my powers,' said the angel. 'But I can give you each contentment.'" The angel leaves, singing "*H*a*p*p*i*n*e*s*s*!" True to themselves, the youngsters have their own point of view on the events:
"Happiness," said Courtney with a strange sigh. "I don't feel particularly happy right now. In fact I feel sort of sad. The angel is gone and I miss him."
"An alien," Judson said. "Not an angel. An angel wouldn't have promised us a reward and then backed off."
"Aliens don't have wings," said Maddy.
As incomprehensible as a reward of contentment might be, its effect on the youngsters is profound. The reward has been good lives well lived, and even skeptic Judson, at the age of eighty-seven, replies to an interviewer's question "To what do you credit your enormous success and the success of your sisters?": "To an angel."