The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not your Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Catherynne M. Valente has concocted a mash-up of pun, wit, traditional fairytale conceits, cautionary fable and pure, unadulterated insanity. This is a very Earnest Story about a Deadly Serious twelve-year-old who seems a little reflective for an American pre-teen and a lot naive for a kid that age. It’s somewhat Dorothy Does Oz After Abandoning Kansas and as full of epic challenges and unusual traveling companions as anything Judy Garland sang her way through.
September is disaffected with her life in World War II Nebraska as mom goes off to play Rosie the Riveter each day and dad has vanished into the European front somewhere. When she is whisked away to Fairyland she goes without a backward glance. Children that age have yet to grow a heart, we are informed, and September is mercifully unencumbered by one. Things begin to go haywire immediately. September receives any number of warnings about the laws in Fairyland and promptly forgets a few and misinterprets the rest. She does try to have an Adventure with No Strings Attached but she isn’t as cool and calculating as she imagines herself to be.
Fairyland seems to be under a deeply wicked spell and the magical creatures that cross paths with September all need something important from her–she gives it without much hesitation. The girl isn’t aware that she is beginning to grow a heart. Hearts are dangerous things and September’s will cost her dear. But she acquires a good soaking in courage and a jeweled sceptre that provides convenient rubies when she needs a bit of change and a faithful flying key and a warm green jacket, although she has lost a shoe. The shoe thing isn’t Cinderella all over again as there are no princes in this tale but there are dragonish creatures and pirates who trade in shadows and covet pookas and a wicked girl with sausage curls who has designs on the powers of September’s new-found heart.
It’s a really unique and fascinating book, although I found it tiring to read–there is so much cleverness crammed into every sentence that it takes effort to stay focused, line by line, so you don’t miss anything. After I finished it I discovered that the book started out as a chapter-by-chapter online serial story, which may account for my sense that I had just read a whole collection of fairytales and not one book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is pretty good but a kid will have to be a VERY accomplished and dedicated reader to stick with it. Terrific vocabulary and word plays. Not for the faint of heart. And not for cramming into a one-day read like a crazed marathon. But, oh well, all my reading is like that now. One month to go. Battling evil forces in Fairyland seems like child’s play compared to reading a book a day on pure adrenalin and not much sleep. But then, I’m living several hours a day inside books and nothing about an imaginary world is exactly easy. Dragons? Wicked spells? Dashed hopes and broken promises? Deadly storms and impenetrable gaols? Bring ’em on.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making Catherynne M. Valente | Macmillan 2011