Catherynne Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making


The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship Of Her Own Making‘s created something of a buzz for itself, and not just for the length of its title.

“You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” said the Green Wind. “How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea which borders Fairyland? I am afraid I cannot go in, as Harsh Airs are not allowed, but I should be happy to deposit you on the Perverse and Perilous Sea.”

Thus begins the quest of a twelve year old girl from Omaha, Nebraska, who has grown weary of pink and yellow teacups, small and amiable dogs, and being left alone when her mother is working the late shift at the clock factory. (September’s father is off at war.) September is launched thereby into an alternate magical land, wherein she must conquer the Evil Marquess who has driven off the Good Queen aided (mostly) by two sidekicks whom she has Bravely Rescued: a Marid and a Wyvern. As with all good fairy tales, September wins out in the end and makes it home, though having eaten Fairy Food, she is required to return periodically…can we say setup for sequels?

Not everyone is going to like it. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that readership is going to be fairly evenly split between those who do like it and those who really don’t care for it, with very little between the two poles of opinion. For once, despite the fact that I personally loved the book, I can definitely sympathize with the people who don’t care for it….and yet, every single one of the problems I can see in this book could twist around to a positive for a reader who likes just these things. For myself, I’m just glad to see a book for tweens with a courageous girl out adventuring; September is afraid, doubts herself, fears for her friends, makes questionable decisions…but she makes amends, does what is necessary and in the end, realized her own strengths combined with loyal friendship will seal the quest.

This is a self-consciously self-aware sort of tale; the narrator will often stop to tell readers things that the protagonist cannot possibly know, being herself only a part of the larger tale. This magical land has more than a few mundane elements of an industrial culture and a ‘developed’ nation: September needs papers to enter Fairyland, her ‘weapon’ is a wrench and her final quest to fix a stopped clock, there is regularly scheduled rubbish collection and a mysterious machine comprised of iron gears marks the division between Reality and Fairyland. On the other hand, fairy and supernatural elements abound: witches, werewolves, spriggans, golems, wyverns and more…but with a twist. The witches cast spells with spoons. The werewolf is, in fact, a wairwulf: a wolf that transforms into a human when the moon is full. The golem is a bath attendant, with soap fingers. The wyvern’s father was a library; September’s companion is named A-through-L and his siblings are M-through-S and T-through-Z and each has studied subjects starting with letters in the range of their names. There is a herd of free-roaming wild velocipedes and a well-mannered green jacket, a gift to September from the Green Wind upon her entry into Fairyland. Even many of the tropes of medieval quest stories are subverted as well; at one point a boy gives the heroine a token to carry into battle, rather than the fair maiden giving the knight her token:

Saturday did not say anything. He bent and tore the cuff from one leg of his trousers. The cuff was blue and ragged and not a bit muddy with velocipede-grease. The Marid tied it around September’s arm. His fingers trembled a bit. The green jacket introduced itself politely but coolly to the cuff. Just so long as the cuff knew who came first.
“What is this?” said September, confused.
“It’s…a favor,” answered Saturday. “My favor. In battle…knights oughtn’t be without one.”

It’s right on the dividing line between kids’ and teens’ literature. On the one hand, it’s more than slightly a fairy tale, so might appeal to younger children. On the other hand, the heroine is right on the tipping point between child and adult; at one point, she’s cradled lovingly by a flying paper lantern which sings her gently to sleep, but at other points in the book, what can only be described as “maturation” themes crop up, though comparatively subtle sexually: a scene with alluringly luscious fruit comes to mind. In that sense, it may be ideal for tweens, who aren’t sure whether they’re still kids

If you did like this book, what to read next? Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories combine a fairy tale sensibility with a modern setting (at least at the time the book was written). Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events has that same “nod and a wink to the readers” aspect–the “author” will often stop to add a bit of information or define a word for the readers–although the books are ostensibly set in the ‘real’ world in their entirety (that is, however, a subject for another blog entry). As mentioned in the blog post to which I linked, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Thirteen Clocks are other worthy entries in the “postmodern self aware fairy tale” category.

For those who did like this book: Apparently, there’s a prequel of sorts; I don’t know if this will be expanded or published in a bound format.

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