The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and A Lament, by Me.

February 8, 2012 § 3 Comments

When I read something of Catherynne M. Valente’s (which I’ve tried to do as often as possible since dying a thousand glorious times over Deathless), I experience two overwhelming reactions.

One: I revel.

Her sentence-level writing, plot development, characters, narrative voice, etc. all thrill me—not only because she’s very good at all of them, but also because she takes every opportunity to surprise and delight and to reach into collective memory and yank on something meaningful while doing it. Valente holds no punches–her character meets her own Death, and sings it a lullabye!–and I worship her for it.

Two: I despair.

There is nothing left to write. Catherynne M. Valente has written all the words–her character meets her own Death, and sings it a lullabye, you guys.

Seriously, why try to write in a wry, self-aware narrative voice (which I spent much of my MFA trying to do, not always successfully)? Catherynne M. Valente does it with more aplomb.

Why even attempt to write knowledgeable folklore retellings? Catherynne M. Valente has, or is in all likelihood about to; I mean, the woman is prolific. Anything I might be thinking of writing right now, she has probably already written, or has in her head to write, oh, sometime this afternoon. Just look at the woman’s list of publications, all within the last seven years.

No really, click on the link. I’ll wait.

Did you see that? Did you?

This is the point at which I and my MFA Gnome, Thisshitsucks, shlump onto the couch and lose ourselves to Jersey Shore reruns.  Seriously, what is there left to do? “The Ice Puzzle (2004), an original online casebook (in fiction form) of The Snow Queen fairy tales across different cultures?” WHAT IS LEFT FOR ME TO DO?

But back to the book at hand, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Technically, it’s middle grade fiction. I say technically because whatever the marketing strategy, it’s clear in the writing that Valente doesn’t put much truck in the labels of “children’s lit” or “middle grade fantasy fiction, girl-appropriate,” even as she’s paying credence to some of the genre’s greats. I was talking about this book to a group of writers recently, one of whom said emphatically, “it’s just not for kids!”

Maybe this writer has a point—maybe Valente’s book, despite the diminutive protagonist and the oh-so-charming inclusion of such characters as A-Through-L, a wyvern who is also part library, isn’t meant for children, but for readers like me.

In her most recent book, Enchanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood, Maria Tatar claims that when an adult reads a child a book, there are two very different exchanges going on between the text and the audience. The child listens to the story because they want to hear about other children who have escaped the everyday, who learn wonderful things and go on adventures that the child cannot experience in their frustratingly small, incapable state. They are yearning for escape. The adult, on the other hand, reads these books in order to return to childhood, drawn in by a most melancholy nostalgia. They yearn for return.

If you read my Peter Pan post, maybe you realize that I identify with this concept in a pretty big way.

But my question—which will lead me back to Valente—is whether or not there’s a difference, not just between audiences, but between writers as well. Can we look at Harry Potter and identify it as a book mainly loaded with child-like adventure-seeking, with only a tiny a dash of nostalgia? Could we then also look at Peter Pan as its kindred spirit on the farther end of the scale, loaded heavily with Barrie’s nostalgia, mixed with a tad of adventure? I say this difference exists, or rather, this scale*, in the books themselves as well as those enjoying them, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland lives pretty close to the tip of the “nostalgia” end.

To say that The Girl Who Circumnavigated is ‘reminiscent of’ or that ‘not since Chronicles of Narnia has there been,’ etc. is to gloss over the obvious, intentional borrowing going on here, and doesn’t give Valente enough credit as both a writer of and an apparent expert in classic children’s fantasy.

Valente willingly and ostentatiously borrows from such books as the aforementioned Peter Pan and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to create a web of reference and nostalgia around her readers as they walk through the otherwise unique world she’s created. For example, Barrie’s oft-repeated insistence in Peter and Wendy that Peter is “heartless,” and his final line, “thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless” is echoed thematically in Valente’s novel—go on “it” does, the tradition of children leaving their parents without so much as a fare-thee-well, the desire to see imaginary lands fueling their heels. Her heroine, twelve-year-old September, is called “heartless” ad nauseum, and like the sorrowful grown-up Wendy watching her daughter Jane alight through the window to help Peter with his Spring cleaning, the narrative voice in The Girl Who Circumnavigated can’t help but make us aware of what a complicated and cathartic thing this is, the heartlessness of children:

And on the westerly arm, pointing up to a little headland and a dwindling of the golden beach, it said:

TO LOSE YOUR HEART

…You and I, being grown-up and having lost our hearts at least twice or thrice along the way, might shut our eyes and cry out, Not that way, child! But as we have said, September was Somewhat Heartless, and felt herself reasonably safe on that road. Children always do.

Besides, she could see smoke off in the distance, wafting upwards in thin curlicues.

September ran off toward the spiraling smoke. Behind her, the beautiful four-armed woman who pointed the way closed her eyes and shook her birch-wood head, rueful and knowing.

Another borrowed trope from Peter Pan: September loses her shadow in Fairyland, and the end of the book hints that she will return in the Spring to find it.

illustration by Pauline Baynes

Ghosts of The Chronicles of Narnia also haunt Valente’s pages: readers of Narnia may remember that the Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter) live a full, grown-up life in Narnia only to find themselves back in England, children once more, tangled in a bunch of old coats at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis glossed over the strangeness of this, not even noting the children’s reactions, except that they feel dutifully bound to tell the Professor, whose wardrobe it was, why four of his coats are missing.

But Catherynne M. Valente fills in the emotional blanks for us, as though she’s been puzzled by this notion perhaps since reading the Narnia books as a child herself, and can’t trouble the issue away. In The Girl Who Circumnavigated, the character who found themselves cast out of Fairyland after living a whole lifetime there describes the same event the Pevensies experienced, with not a bit of the apathy:

With one awful ticking, I was swept out of Fairyland as though I had never been there. I woke up in my father’s house, curled inside the armoire, as though no time at all had passed. No Leopard. No sorcerer. No child. I was twelve again and hungry, and my father was just getting home from his day’s work. He bellowed up to me, his voice thick with liquor. But oh, how I remembered it all! I remembered it fiercely, my whole life in Fairyland, taken away in an instant! Because a clock ran out! September, surely, you can feel in your bones the unfairness of it! The loss! I screamed in the armoire. I kicked the wooden walls in, trying to get back. I cried as though I were dying.

To say that The Girl Who Circumnavigated is a book merely like these books it references isn’t an exact description: it is participating in an in-depth conversation with them, responding to and expanding upon the parts of these books that Valente the child reader found stuck in her brain. This is a book written for the lookers-back of us, those that have read, and recognize, our childhood favorites reinterpreted through Valente’s sympathetic lens.

illustration by Trina Schart Hyman

However, to say that Valente’s book is inappropriate for children would be a grave misstep, just as grave as claiming that children can’t handle Peter standing at the water’s rise and boldly claiming that death will only be one more big adventure. For my money, the most necessary children’s books, the mainstays, have always been the books that explore joy as well as sadness, and the always present possibility of change and loss.

September is a brave, compassionate, inventive, and vulnerable character. Though her story has its share of tears, any child would take heart at her resilience.

I think my favorite scene—my favorite line, too—has to be when September has, as the title promises, crafted a raft out of jeweled debris and her own hair (very inventive, this character), and is sailing around Fairyland as naked as a jaybird, using her dress as the sail. Now, C. S. Lewis would have had his clever Pevensies bring along some biscuits and jam for the journey at sea, or, if they were in real dire straights, have some magical being bring food to them from the water.

But not so for September: she catches a fish. She catches it with a line of her own hair and a broken bit of metal and her own blood as bait. She catches it, she kills it (looking away as she does), and she digs in with her own fingers, crying all the while.

Later, when she’s reunited with her friends, our exhausted heroine comes clean:

September clung to the Green Wind, her safety, her protector. “I had to kill a fish,” she whispered finally, as though confessing a great sin.

And here’s the rub, those who read this and think that a child would find little to relate to, when reading about another child’s regret:

“I forgive you,” the Green Wind said softly, and dissolved in her arms with one great final purr from the Leopard.

Resiliance, regret, forgiveness, and a little hint of George MacDonald.

I ask you, what is there left to write?

*(Maybe Tatar feels the same—I admit, I’ve only just started Enchanted Hunters, and when I find out I’ll report back.)

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