I never really trusted Alice, as a young reader. Partly, that’s because the blonde vacancy of the Disney version was lodged firmly in my brain, and I could only read her lines in that breathy, 1950s voice. But it’s also because Alice always seemed like the wrong little girl to fall down the rabbit hole. She’s continually surprised at strange things (you’re in Wonderland, for godssake), she never makes any real friends or real enemies, and she hopes she’ll be home in time to feed her cat. September, the heroine of Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, is a bit more adventurous.
September is a sturdy young girl from Omaha, whose mother works in a factory on airplane engines, and whose father is a soldier in Europe. One day, the Green Wind rides down on his Leopard of Little Breezes and whisks her away to Fairyland because he was lonely and September seems “an irritable and irascible enough child.” Once in Fairyland, September proceeds to have a series of episodic adventures with creatures far more wickedly clever and outré than any of the citizens of Alice’s Wonderland. She meets two witches both married to the same wairwulf. She becomes very good friends with a Wyvern named A-through-L whose father was a Library. She trades her shadow to save a little girl who is also a jackal.
But the story isn’t wholly absorbed by these light, chapter-by-chapter encounters. September also discovers that an evil Marquess rules Fairyland, who has been imposing all kinds of new and awful ideas like bureaucracy, law and order, and taxable income. The Marquess’ manipulations push September into the darker and eerier edges of Fairyland, where she meets her own Death and pulls her mother’s sword from a casket. It all comes together in a surprisingly wrenching and heartfelt finale, without any of that cheating business of waking up from a strange dream.
Just when I suspect that the trope of the young child falling into a magic kingdom has run its course, when I’ve decided that I’ll mutiny at the sight of one more wardrobe or enchanted ring or secret door, I’m proven wrong. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland is sly and clever and sweet and a pure pleasure to read. It’s narrated in a perfect imitation of the Kiplings and Nesbits of the late Victorian era, with the author sometimes pausing to whisper confidingly to her readers. If September must remain ignorant of some perilous event or secret, well, “that is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator.”
Reading it now, in my mid-twenties, I loved it. This isn’t a book only for children — as, indeed, few truly excellent children’s books are. Most young readers might skip entirely the more erudite, self-consciously witty parts of the book. When, for example, September speaks with the alchemists about turning lead into gold, and they respond:
Oh, we solved that long ago… A famous case study even reported a method for turning straw into gold! The young lady who discovered it wrote a really rather thin paper — but she toured the lecture circuit for years!
A younger version of myself would have merely been suspicious that somebody was poking fun at my beloved Rumpelstiltskin story, and skipped ahead. Earlier in the book, September asks a customs agent why there’s a terrifying mechanical monster at the border of Fairyland, and the agent responds:
All customs agents have them, otherwise, why would people agree to stand in line and be peered at and inspected? We all live inside the terrible engine of authority, and it grinds and shrieks and burns so that no one will say, lines on maps are silly. Where you live, the awful machinery is smaller, harder to see.
I loved that line so much I waved the book around and made my boyfriend read it and e-mailed my Mom. But I would have skimmed over phrases like the “terrible engine of authority” when I was younger. Children are very talented at extracting the bits of a story that are most useful to themselves — that September is brave and good, and Fairyland is a tricky place, and sometimes you can only get where you need to go in a ship of your own making — but adults are less so. I encourage terribly Grown Up readers to shelve their impatience with young girls and missing shoes, and read this for the pure cleverness of the thing.
I also recommend this book to Grown Up readers who encountered too many Alices and Wendys and Susans and Lucys when they were younger. September is not a good little girl who worries about her siblings and mothers everything to death. She is not a civilizing force. She’s Somewhat Heartless, and tough-minded, and outspoken. At the moment when she discovers her mother’s sword — an old, magical weapon which is different for every little girl — I practically cheered. Much later, she is offered the chance to go home (“You’ll wake up, as if it were a dream… No faults, no worries, no blame,”), and she refuses. I wish there were more little girls in fiction who were brave enough to refuse their own rescue, and carry on.