Thursday, June 2, 2011

Her Dress Her Sail

I think if I had read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making as a child, a thrill would have run through me when I learned the heroine’s name was September.  I had an ordinary sort of name as a child, but I was born in September, and though September herself was born in May, I would have felt this connection between names and birthday gave us a kinship. I would have hoped that kinship ran deep enough (names are important things in Fairyland) that the Green Wind might someday come for me, too.

September, though Somewhat Heartless, is very much the kind of girl I wanted to be. Valente has spoken about how Fairyland was written to be a book about saying yesSeptember wants to go to Fairyland, wants to have an adventure, wants to stay in a place of magic where a girl might have a Wyverary for a friend. In a way, Fairyland is the antidode to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wherein Dorothy escapes grey, horrid Kansas for a place of color and wonder, and then spends the entire book trying to go back.

Of course, in Valente’s hands, Fairyland becomes much more than just a literary antidote, just as September is more than simply a mirror image Dorothy. Fairyland is indeed a book about saying yes, a book about the idea that adventures come to those who choose to have them. It is also a book that engages with the dark side of that yes.

There are places, like Fairyland, where visitors cannot stay, from which there must be a returning, no matter how badly one wishes to remain there forever. But not everyone agrees that there’s no place like home, and some, when they are forced to return there, rebel. Stumbling into magic has its consequences, but being pushed out of it does as well, and sometimes those consequences are dire. By writing a story about the desperate desire to stay in Fairyland, Valente foregrounds the fact that, for a nontrivial portion of readers, home is a place where you wish yourself out of, not back to, and that for a second group of readers – those who, like September were loved, and wanted, and cared for, but still preferred elsewhere – home might be fine, but the adventures of Fairyland are better. The place we begin isn’t always the place we ought to be.

Fairyland is a beautiful story, wonderful, and wise, and true, in the way that all fairy stories are true. Had I read it when I was younger, I would have inscribed its words on my memory for always, and wished for a Wyverary of my own. For now, older than September, less Heartless, and not as wise, I will still wish for her bravery, and say yes.

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