I love fairytales. Who doesn’t? Fantastical characters and creatures, in a fantastical world, bound – or not – by fantastical rules. Magic is prevalent, sometimes helpful and sometimes dangerous. People will often pop up, say something critical but cryptic, then disappear, never to be seen again, leaving our hero (or, more often, heroine) to ponder that over until the exact right situation occurs where the tidbit becomes useful. And that’s another thing, you will find yourself with so many female characters in fairytales. Sure, some are conniving queens or princesses in need of being rescued, or witches with tempers and bad social skills, but they are women doing things, and so help me, I love it. So keeping all of this in mind, it probably doesn’t surprise you that when I went out and immediately bought a copy of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making before I’d even finished reading my library copy. (Do I even have to say it? Spoilers to follow…)
The Girl Who (unless you prefer TGWCFiaSoHOM) is about September, a twelve-year-old who is bored enough of being in Omaha, Nebraska, that when a dude in a smoking jacket shows up at her window claiming to be the Green Wind and offering her a ride to Fairyland on the back of his Leopard (who, of course, talks), she says sure thing and takes off without so much as leaving a note. Fairyland, on the other hand, is not exactly what she expected: it’s a place of magic and mystery, but it’s also oddly bureaucratic. For example, just to enter, she has to solve a riddle and then go through customs and get a visa. From there, September finds herself at a literal crossroads, having to choose between losing her way, her mind, her life, or her heart. She chooses to lose her heart, and the narrator (a sassy character in his/her own right) acknowledges that we, as older folk, would warn her against this choice, having lost our own hearts once or twice. However, we have to remember that children are Heartless in some capacity or another, claims the narrator, so it’s more or less okay for September to make this choice. And she does lose her heart, as the sign prophecies, when she loses her friends and has to make terrible decisions on their behalf.
It’s hard not to look at September without thinking of girl heroines that came before her, if only because she mentions them. Being a reader, September thinks she needs to be ill-tempered and irascible in order to get anywhere. But Lucy Pevensie was kind to a fault, and Dorothy Gale was always polite, and hell, they became princesses and queens. September’s kindness doesn’t get her any crowns, and will occasionally get her into trouble as people exploit her loyalty to her friends, but the fact is she has friends, and her loyalty earns her loyalty in kind.
She meets a series of characters along the way, as you would, like the witch sisters Hello and Goodbye, and their wairwulf husband Manythanks. The witches mourn the loss of their magic Spoon as it was stolen by the Marquess (self-appointed ruler of Fairyland, of course), and September’s desire to please, as well as her desire to have a proper Fairyland adventure, prompt her to volunteer to travel to the capital and get the Spoon back. Along the way, she meets A-through-L, the wyvern whose mother claims his father is a library. And she meets the wicked Marquess, bringer of bureaucracy, who rules Fairyland with a decided amount of rules. [Though he’s talking about the Marquess’s locking down the wings of all flying creatures with chains, thus illustrating her cruelty, A-through-L (Ell for short), delivers possibly the most hilarious line in the whole book:
“[I]n the days of Good Queen Mallow, [discrimination against flying creatures] would never have happened and we’re all very upset about it, but she’s the Marquess. She has a hat.”
That, it seems, is Fairyland in a nutshell: part horror, part pure ridiculousness.]
The Marquess threatens to turn Ell into glue if September won’t agree to go on a dangerous and time-sensitive quest for her, so September agrees for Ell’s sake. Then they meet a Marid (a djinn born in the sea) named Saturday, who is kept caged up in service of the Marquess, so she can have someone battle him nearly to death in order to grant wishes. September is warned by several, including Saturday himself, not to rescue the Marid boy, but she does so anyway. For all of her talk of being ill-tempered, she’s not, particularly. She’s human, she’s feeling. She has the fleeting moments of Heartlessness, as the author points out, because she’s a child, because she’s growing. She leaves her mother behind without so much as a note, but she regrets it later. She sacrifices her own shadow to save the life of a Pooka girl on a ferry, a girl that she has barely spoken to and never sees again, without understanding the customs or rules.
We see September in Nebraska for a hot half of a page, and all we learn is that she’s bored, and that boredom has produced a hatred of small dogs and patterned teacups. As such, she’s kind of a blank slate going into Fairyland, confused and distracted, paying little attention to the rules laid down by the Green Wind. She’s either naive or too clever for her own good when she claims food fetched for her by a wyvern is not truly fairy food, but wyvern food, so she’s doing no harm in eating it. She’s wrong, of course, and maintains this illusion (or disillusion) for some time, so when it comes to the point where she’s flat-out told she’s been eating fairy food all this time, she gorges herself and suffers horrible results, nearly winding up as a tree. But really, bouts of unintentional shape-shifting aside, she’s very human in this very inhuman world: she’s scared and forces herself to be brave; she weeps for others; she weeps for herself in her worst moments, giving up before someone comes to bolster her spirits. September is, in some ways, how you’d imagine yourself if you got the chance to visit Fairyland. (Okay, she’s how I’d imagine myself in Fairyland.) She just wants to go on a trip, have an adventure, she doesn’t particularly care what the adventure actually is. She stumbles into a quest, is overwhelmed trying to remember and abide by the lengthy rules and regulations, and when things get tough, she just wants to go home. But her friends are kidnapped and so she builds her own ship and sails all the way around Fairyland (wait, I feel like I’ve heard this somewhere…) on a rescue mission. It’s pretty badass, all things considered. You look at the heroines of fairytales like this, the Alices and Dorothys and Lucys and Lyras and Septembers, and you think that they are so bold and so brave that no one else could survive adventures like these. And that’s why I love fairytales.