The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente; ill. Ana Juan

Feiwel and Friends, 2011

247 pages

Women and girls are survivors.

Throughout history, across the world, we’ve been systematically oppressed, brutalized, and marginalized–yet here we are. We still make up the majority of the world’s population. In many nations, we also make up the majority of university students, the majority of lawyers- and doctors-to-be, the majority of entrepreneurs.

We  still labor under a number of disadvantages–some official, some not–even in nations where freedom and equality are founding principles. But more often than not, we find ways to make our own success. If opportunity so much as stands outside the door, we yank on the handle and pull it inside.

There are, of course, numerous inspirational stories of real women getting the better of adversity and oppression. Ghettoized American moms who won’t accept failing schools for their children. Afghan teenagers who stand up to the Taliban. Ethiopian women who form coffee-growing collectives to feed their families.

But sometimes a story of survival is just as powerful when told through fiction, and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is that kind of story.

It has the boldness and realization of His Dark Materials, the whirling action of Lord of the Rings, and the ethereal language and imagery of The Tale of Despereaux. It’s an odd, sometimes jarring, amalgam, but it’s also compelling and very, very effective.

The novel’s heroine is 12-year-old September, a WWII-era Nebraska girl who has been left to fend mostly for herself as her father and mother both devote themselves to the war effort. Dad is an intelligence officer in combat overseas; Mom is a Rosie the Riveter. September, meanwhile, washes teacups and yearns for an adventure of her own.

When the Green Wind comes to whisk her away on the Leopard of Little Breezes, she leaves literally without a backward glance. What she doesn’t realize is that her adventure in Fairyland is not going to be the stuff of fairy tales.

Or at least, not fairy tales of the Peter Pan or Cinderella variety. Think Hans Christian Andersen instead.

As she travels through Fairyland, September encounters a variety of creatures and people. Two, a wyvern/library named A-Through-L and a marid named Saturday, become her traveling companions and allies.

They start off attempting to reclaim a witch’s spoon from The Marquess, Fairyland’s tyrannical little-girl ruler, and end up on a mission both for and against The Marquess herself.

Over the course of the book, September both witnesses and suffers brutality, deception, mutilation, and violent oppression. She also encounters deep love, loyalty, selflessness, and kindness. She pushes herself beyond limits she didn’t realize she possessed, learns lessons she didn’t know could be read, and makes sacrifices she wasn’t aware were possible.

She doesn’t escape unscathed or even whole–at least, not whole as she would have defined it pre-Fairyland. Rather, she finds herself, in her own words, “well and whole” in new fashion: she’s lost something of herself but gained in new directions.

The narrator says, quite simply, that she has begun to grow a heart.

And that, really, is what makes survival inspiring. Those who have experienced trying or traumatic circumstances and escape “well and whole” often do so because the experience has grown their hearts. Through their own suffering, they’ve learned to have compassion on others. Or they’ve gained a passion to fight back against what hurt them–not just for their own sake, but for others’ too.

This is the kind of spirit that leads victims of acid attacks to show their faces to the international press, drives cancer survivors to launch massive fundraisers, or guides the loved ones of murder and rape victims to press for more action and more laws.

These people can’t undo their own trauma, but they are determined that it won’t destroy their lives and that fewer people will suffer.

I want my daughter to read that message: that, even if she encounters the most heinous suffering, she can survive. And not just to heal, but to help.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first in a series whose length is yet to be determined. Valente released the second book, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, in October 2012.

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