Sunday, May 8, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

"Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents' house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver's cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds in the shantytowns where the Six Winds live.

'You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,' said the Green Wind. 'How would you like to come away with me and ride up on the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea, which borders Fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you upon the Perverse and Perilous Sea.'

'Oh, yes!' said September, who disapproved deeply of pink-and-yellow teacups and also of small and amiable dogs."

As you might glean from these opening paragraphs, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is simultaneously an homage to classic fantasy literature for children and a (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) response to it. It has the whimsy, humor, and picaresque format of Alice in Wonderland; it has the enchanting other-worldliness and good-versus-evil conflict of The Wizard of Oz; and its narrative voice, together with its recurring theme of the heartlessness of children, could have come straight out of Peter Pan.

At the same time, Fairyland possesses a magic all its own. September's awareness of stories and of the fact that she is in one gives Fairyland a decidedly post-modern feel, even as the book hearkens back, both in spirit and through direct allusion, to the likes of Oz, Neverland, and Narnia. More notable still is Valente's excellent use of language. Take the following:

"September smoothed the lap of  her now-wrinkled and rumpled orange dress. She liked anything orange: leaves; some moons; marigolds; chrysanthemums; cheese; pumpkin, both in pie and out; orange juice; marmalade. Orange is bright and demanding. You can't ignore orange things. She once saw an orange parrot in the pet store and had never wanted anything so much in her life. She would have named it Halloween and fed it butterscotch. Her mother said butterscotch would make a bird sick and, besides, the dog would certainly eat it up. September never spoke to the dog again--on principle."

When I read that paragraph, I knew I had encountered something extraordinary--not only a tough and passionate female protagonist, but a spellbinding, lyrical narrative voice.

Inventiveness abounds in Fairyland. With every fantastic detail I encountered, from soap golems to woven cities to feral bicycles to wyverns with libraries for grandfathers, I found myself thinking over and over: I wish I'd come up with that! For all its charm, Fairyland does not shy from darkness or from putting its heroine in peril, and while it flatly rejects sentimentality, it exudes genuine emotion and deep thought.

Towards the end of the story, September asks a friend if she is "the chosen one" meant to redeem Fairyland. He responds: "Of course not. No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world. [...] You chose. You chose it all." In a literary environment rife with stories about teenage messiahs fulfilling prophecies, this was, in my opinion, a much-needed counter-message.

Rarely have I encountered a children's book with such an astute combination of sensuous details, memorable characters, elegant prose, and reflection balanced with action. Go and read it immediately.

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