“It was everything Bird had wanted to hear from her own mother, but never had. It was as if the Puppeteer could see into her dreams – and perhaps she could. Bird should have noticed that nothing the Puppeteer said was surprising. It was all just exactly what she hoped and planned for. That’s the sign of a bad story, and a false one.”
I read a lot of GU books, and books that might be GU. A large portion of them are YA or Intermediate fantasy. A lot of them are mediocre at best. Even when they’re perfect examples of the archetype (or perhaps because they are) they can often feel like the authors are just going through the motions, telling a young girl’s “hero’s journey” type story without any real blood to it. But then, sometimes, I stumble onto a gem that makes it all worth it. Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull is one of these. It is indeed a Girls Underground book, but with a complex version of the plot progression, and an entirely unique story to tell, as well as an emotional depth rarely found in books aimed at a young audience. While I found it by chance on a display at the library, I am going to have to buy my own copy now because I’m going to want to read this one again.
“‘I’m here,’ said Bird’s voice, tiny but strong. ‘I found the path. The new path is down, Summer. We’re going down.'”
Summer, 12 and Bird, 9, are sisters. One morning they wake to find their parents missing, and set out in search of them. In the forest, they find a way into another world, called Down (how perfect!). It is a world of birds, normally guided by a bird queen, but the queen has been missing for years and a terrifying woman called the Puppeteer has taken residence in her castle and enslaved the birds, forcing them to act like humans. But the Puppeteer comes from our world originally, and it is eventually revealed that she has had a hand in the misery of both worlds for awhile.
Upon arriving in Down, Bird and Summer quickly become separated and have their own adventures and challenges, each one following their own sort of GU journey, which is an interesting twist. Summer is helped by a raven and what looks like a man, and she ends up spending time in the World Tree (there are a lot of elements borrowed from Norse mythology), and then visiting the Green Home, a magical land the birds used to winter in every year but haven’t been able to access since the queen’s disappearance. Bird becomes entangled with the Puppeteer, who promises that Bird will be the new queen (although of course she has ulterior motives). Even when her family comes to rescue her, she rejects them because she wants her dream more.
The Puppeteer is defeated but not by either of the girls. And yet, instead of that being the climax and end of the story, there is much more to tell. We see how things don’t always wrap up tidily after the adversary is gone. The reunion of their family (because they do find their parents) is awkward and difficult due to a complicated backstory. In the end, it takes the strength and determination and special talents of each of the sisters to accomplish the most important task – to lead all the birds of Down to the Green Home, and make the crossing once more safe for them.
In addition to the rich world that is developed, the interesting focus on birds, the interweaving of known and unknown mythologies and folklore, there is an emotional poignancy that I’ve rarely seen so eloquently expressed. There is horror – for instance, the Puppeteer keeping a basement full of caged birds who went mad trying to be more human, and who she occasionally eats in order to temporarily understand bird language, becoming progressively more mad herself as a result – and it is unflinchingly faced and felt by the characters, and doesn’t just pass over them. There is loss and grief and resentment and blame, and these things are complex and shifting and still accompanied by love and familial bonds and other things that make it all very authentic. This book stands out from the rest, and I highly recommend it.
“These were tugboat thoughts, towing cargo ships of grief. They passed through her. She did not cling to them, or turn away. She watched them pass. Tears leaked from under her eyelids and dried on her cheeks. She was an ocean bearing heavy ships; but she was an enormous ocean.”