The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s first in the Fairyland series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, led me to expect a loud and wonderfully brazen feminism. That was not what I got from the story, but I was perhaps even more pleased. I am only as I’m writing this review realizing how feminist the text truly is.
Valente deals in the subversion of stereotypes male and female most prominently in the characters of September (female) and Saturday (male).
The protagonist, September, has long hair, wears a dress, uses the pronoun “she,” and before she leaves home is assigned the chore of washing dishes (all acts stereotypically assigned to women). She is Ravished, carried off by the Green Wind in the manner of Persephone by Hades, taking their another female role, but deprived of her escort, she must take on the hero’s role in her adventure. She uses the jewels from a scepter to buy her passage on her first quest: to steal back a witch’s Spoon from the Marquess, the despotic ruler of Fairyland. The Spoon she keeps for herself on the subsequent quests. The Spoon belonging to a female witch and through its association with the historically and stereotypically female domain of the kitchen and the act of cooking is feminine but it acts in its function as a weapon in a more masculine sphere. September wields the Spoon like a cudgel to break apart a lobster cage, like a grappling hook with which she wrangles an animate bicycle. Conquering her own Death, she wins a new weapon: a sword that manifests as her mother’s wrench. Her mother is an airplane mechanic while her father is away at the battlefront (of World War II), so September follows in a family tradition of women transgressing the feminine sphere to step into the masculine one in the absence of men.
September’s companion, Saturday, is rescued by September from the Marquess, taking the role of the damsel in the tower in the Western fairytale myth. He is quiet, gentle, pacifist, and emotionally vulnerable rather than exuding stereotypical masculine strength and emotional restraint of the Western myth of masculinity. He takes a backseat to September’s heroism, is rescued far more often than he rescues, and at one point presents September with a favor in the tradition of women to knights before battle.
September moves from a more feminine sphere, being Ravished and wielding a Spoon, to a more traditionally masculine sphere, being compared to a knight on a quest, saving others, being the hero, and wielding a sword-wrench, but all of these things without the world are more feminine. It is the Western tradition that she transgresses and not the world’s gender stereotypes, and that is why this is an important feminist book. What September does, the masculine roles she inhabits are not masculine, not feminine, but non-gendered in the world. This is the feminism of equality, the best and paragon of feminism.
There are several other characters transgressing stereotypes that I could examine. I could rave about Valente’s answer to body shaming, her call to respect the elderly, the deviances from the man-woman marriage (two women, one man-wairwulf witch, then the Nasnas who are probably a paper in themselves and a reference to Plato besides)….
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the language of this book. The language is beautiful. It is comparable to Patrick Rothfuss’, particularly to Patrick Rothfuss writing in the voice of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. As Pat with Auri, much of what Valente says as narrator of this book (and she is a very present narrator throughout the text) seems outlandish but rings true nonetheless. This is the truth stripped of its science. This is the truth we saw before science. And it’s beautiful. Its fresh and timeless. It is the language of wonder and young eyes.
Valente, Catherynne M. Fairyland, Book 1: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. Illus. Ana Juan. New York: Square Fish-Macmillan, 2012. Originally published 2011.
This review is not endorsed by Catherynne M. Valente, Ana Juan, Square Fish, Macmillan, or Fiewel and Friends, the Macmillan imprint that originally published the book. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
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