Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Wonder of This Girl

When finishing late last night the children's book debut of Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, one word descriptors kept popping into my mind--steadfast, intense, ingenious, elaborate, intricate, painful, unforgettable and unexpected.

The story begins as all good fairy tales do:  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. 

With the Green Wind at her side and riding upon his faithful steed, The Leopard, September journeys into an adventure straight out of storybooks.  It seems that all is not right in Fairyland.  The former ruler, The Good Queen Mallow, has been ousted by The Marquess.  A proposal, not to be spurned,  is put before September by The Marquess. Accompanied by her new companions, A-Through-L, a fiery, red Wyvern and Saturday, a blue-skinned Marid, she travels throughout this world populated with varied beings encountering trials and triumphs in order to claim a talisman. 

Steadfast came to mind because no matter how wretched her state, though many would have faltered, September stayed true to her friends and a path to make all right.  "...But you didn't.  You chose.  You chose it all.  Just like you chose your path on the beach:  to lose your heart is not a path for the faint and fainting"...  One can only have the utmost admiration for this character; each reader will feel empathy for her depending on their own life experiences.

In crossing a body of water, the Barleybroom River, to arrive at Pandemonium, the capital of Fairyland, the barge is stopped.  All the children are gathered on the deck.  One is to be sacrificed so that passage to the other side can be continued.  This scene is so intense in every aspect, terrified children, horrified, pleading parents, evil, horse-headed human-body-like water spirits demanding the tithe, that readers are glued to the pages dreading the outcome but needing to know.

Encountering a group of witches one can not help but wonder at the ingenious mind that took this simple meeting and expanded it to reveal a profound truth.  Any child knows what a witch looks like.  The warts are important, yes, the hooked nose, the cruel smile.  But it's the hat that cinches it:  pointy and black with a wide rim.  Plenty of people have warts and hooked noses and cruel smiles but are not witches at all.  Hats change everything.  September knew this with all her being, deep in the place where she knew her own name, that her mother would still love her even though she hadn't waved goodbye.  For one day, her father had put on a hat with golden things on it and suddenly he hadn't been her father anymore, he had been a soldier, and he had left.  Hats have power.  Hats can change you into someone else.

Before getting closer to Pandemonium September stumbles on the House Without Warning and its golem caretaker, Lye.  As a gentle caring hostess she bathes our stalwart heroine in three baths (three being a classic number in tales of this sort); a bath for her courage, wishes and luck.  At each tub Lye offers an explanation for the purpose of each of these cleanings.  These elaborate accounts are beautiful and timeless in their meaning.

The intricate detail used to describe the Autumn Provinces and the town of Mercurio creates one of the most imaginative, picturesque scenes that readers are likely to discover in stories. 
...But no red you have ever seen could touch the crimson bleed of the trees in that place.  No oak gone gnarled and orange with October is half as bright as the boughs that bent over September's head, dropping their hard, sweet acorns into her spinning spokes.  But you must try as hard as you can.  Squeeze your eyes closed, as tight as you can, and think of all your favorite autumns, crisp and perfect, all bound up together like a stack of cards. That is what it is like, the awful, wonderful brightness of Fairy colors.  Try to smell the hard, pale wood sending up sharp, green smoke into the afternoon.  To feel the mellow, golden sun on your skin, more gentle and cozier and more golden than even the light of your favorite reading nook at the close of the day.

...For some mad baker had built the town of Mercurio from loaves of thick, moist bread shingled with sugar and mortared with butter.  Heavy eaves of brown crust shaded sweet little dinner-bun doors...The cobbles of the square were muffin-tops, and all the fountain gushed fresh, sweet milk.  It was as though the witch who built the gingerbread house in the story had a great number of friends and had decided to start up a collective.

As the end of the narrative approaches, the hardships that befall this determined girl are painful to read as the land, elements and beings conspire to end her quest and very life.  These chapters are not for the young. These portrayals are realistic and heart-wrenching.  The twists and turns mount as the worst and best in each character reveal themselves to give the reader unforgettable memories of these moments.

Of course, readers wish for a happily-ever-after ending as they step into the world of fairy but to tell you one way or the other would deprive you of the extraordinary satisfaction of reading this tale penned by an author of uncommon talent and a gift for the unexpected.  To be sure, when beginning,  readers will need to get into the rhythm of the language; it is unlike most books of this genre.  In fact this book might be in a class all by itself.  To limit the readership for children would be a mistake.  This title, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, has much to offer readers of all ages.  All good stories do this, don't they?

Not to mention the outstanding illustrations of Ana Juan would be a grievous oversight.  They give vision to Valente's words as few could.  Their otherworldly quality is potent.

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