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“It’s not always what happens that is the most important thing. Sometimes it’s how you tell the story.”

Partway through The Wrinkled Crown I realized I had actually read another book by Anne Nesbet awhile back, and profiled it here (The Cabinet of Earths). I was delighted to discover that this one was just as engaging and original, as well as being another Girls Underground book (in fact, it even has a chapter named “The Girl From Underground”!).

Linny, almost 12, lives in the magical “wrinkled” hills in a village called Lourka, named after a special stringed instrument – an instrument that all girls under the age of 12 are forbidden to touch. Linny, however, not only touches one, she builds her own and plays it. But when the dreaded Voices (terrifying invisible entities that are never explained, making them more disturbing) come to exact their punishment, they take Linny’s friend Sayra instead, off to an unknown land called Away. Linny decides to embark on a dangerous journey to the Plain below the wrinkled hills, where magic is regarded with suspicion and anxiety, in hopes of finding a cure to retrieve Sayra’s spirit.

She is accompanied off and on by a village boy named Elias, and the strange Half-Cat she meets in the Plain. Together they keep getting captured, “rescued” and pursued by a variety of opposing forces in a complicated political landscape that pits the logical, technology-based Plain folks of a divided city against the more natural, magical wrinkled folks. Linny alone seems to be comfortable with both ways of being – and thus, contrary to my expectations from more typical stories like this, she does not seek to have magic and nature prevail, but rather to balance both sides (a nice change of pace!).

There is no singular adversary, but rather several, some of which seem helpful at first, but all of which have their own agendas (and she does defeat them, in various ways, though not in any really satisfying final confrontation). Linny does go literally underground at one point, in a harrowing trial through labyrinthine passages, some of which almost trap her beneath the earth. She also spends some time forgetting herself and her quest when she reaches the Sea which seems to take all thought and memory away.

Along the way, Linny discovers that she resembles a legendary figure that is supposed to save their divided world. In fact, it seems she is this person precisely because her mother journeyed to the wrinkled hills in search of that girl, and in the hills, Story makes reality. When Linny finally reaches her friend Sayra, they manage to return from the distant Away by telling the story of their adventures, over and over again, including an ending that brings them home again, until it comes true. An excellent example of the Power of Story!

One thing that is mentioned several times in this book that holds true for many Girls Underground – their companions often end up suffering quite a bit due to being in their sphere of influence, even though the Girl herself does not directly harm them. It is the consequence of being caught up in an important Story, I suppose, but significant to note that it’s not all fun and adventure. Linny spends a lot of time feeling guilty that every move she makes seems to endanger a friend.

“And then there was the great bang of the front door slamming shut – and Linny, whose friends kept being swallowed by dooms of her own making, found herself horribly, awfully alone.”

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“You’re off! You’re off! A story has got hold of you. There’s no denying the undeniable, no dillydallying with the undelayable. Off you go, then! Follow the words, my love. That’s what a writer does. Just follow the words.”

While the writing in Finding Serendipity by Angelica Banks was a bit too juvenile even for a middle-grade book, in my opinion, I soldiered on because it was not only a GU plot but a classic (if simplistic) example of The Power of Story.

Tuesday’s mother is a famous writer, who disappears out an open window one day. Tuesday discovers a magical system of transportation via writing a story on her mother’s typewriter, and rushes off to find her (with her loyal dog in tow). She is led to a world where stories happen, to a place called The Beginning, where she meets a sometimes-companion boy named Blake and a sometimes-helpful Librarian. The twist is, while Tuesday is out adventuring, her mother has quickly returned home and is now frantic about her missing daughter!

Tuesday manages to conjure up her own mother’s story-world and ends up embroiled in her own tale with the protagonist, and the evil pirate adversary. She ends up having to rescue her new friend and her newly-magical dog. While she does not return home in the middle, she does briefly return to the Beginning before deciding to re-enter the story-world. She also faces an oubliette-like time where she loses the thread of her Story. (Says her companion: “Got all the way into your story before you had your own version of what I like to call the Swamp of Doubt – when you don’t know where you’re going or what will happen next, so you stumble about in a fog.”)

Tuesday eventually faces off with the Adversary in a rhyming contest, which she essentially wins by telling a powerful Story. Then she goes home and learns that she too was special, to be able to follow her mother, and is a writer herself (though at the very end, the reality of what she just experienced is casually weakened in a way that seems to undermine the magical aspect of the story, which was disappointing).

“It was cruel and cold and brutal and beautiful, and I would give anything to go back there. Maybe it broke me in some deep, intrinsic way that I am incapable of seeing….I don’t care. It was my home, and it finally let me be myself, and I hate it here.”

What happens to the Girl Underground after her adventure is over? Well, in a few glorious examples, she stays underground, but most of the time she ends up back in the “real world” either voluntarily (so many of them want so desperately to get home to their dull Kansas-like lands!) or as the natural conclusion to her journey. But what about those girls who never wanted to leave, and pine away for the magical world they left behind?

In Every Heart a Doorway, author Seanan McGuire introduces us to a boarding school made just for those girls (and a few boys) who stepped through a looking glass or went down an impossibly stairway inside a trunk, and ended up in a world they felt was truly “home” – only to get cast out again and be labeled “troubled” or even “insane” by confused parents.

Why mostly girls?

“Because ‘boys will be boys’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy…They’re too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds. It’s not innate. It’s learned. But it protects them from the doors, keeps them safe at home. Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.”

I don’t know that this is the full, true answer, but it may at least be part of it. Even more accurate, though, in my opinion, is her description of why the doors opened for these girls in the first place – and always into worlds that spoke to some deep, hidden part of themselves.

“Some doors really do appear only once, the consequence of some strange convergence that we can’t predict or re-create. They’re drawn by need and by sympathy. Not the emotion – the resonance of one thing to another. There’s a reason you were all pulled into worlds that suited you so well.”

She also speaks to how the journey changes a person. Those of us who understand the Power of Story and implement it in our lives will find this very familiar:

“The habit of narration, of crafting something miraculous out of the commonplace, was hard to break. Narration came naturally after a time spent in the company of talking scarecrows or disappearing cats; it was, in its own way, a method of keeping oneself grounded, connected to the thin thread of continuity that ran through all lives, no matter how strange they might become. Narrate the impossible things, turn them into a story, and they could be controlled.”

But no matter what they do, most of these girls won’t find their way back through their doors. Most Girls Underground return home and stay home, in the end. And for those who don’t want to, it must be excruciating. Especially as their memories and surety fade over time.

“My window is closing….Every day I wake up a little more linear, a little less lost, and one day I’ll be one of the women who says ‘I had the most charming dream,’ and I’ll mean it. [I’m] old enough to know what I’m losing in the process of being found.”

Every Heart a Doorway is a short and imperfect book (I always wince a little at authors who clearly think they’re very clever, even if they are), but it also cuts to the heart of this archetype in certain ways I’ve never seen before, and holds a lot of truth.

511pZqCjfWL._SL160_The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab is really only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but well worth reading.

Teenager Lexi lives in a small village named Near (in some undefined time that includes rifles but not cars or modern technology) that appears to be very closed off to outside influences. There’s a story in Near of a witch who lived long ago, who was accused of killing a child and murdered in retaliation. History has become indistinguishable from legend at this point, but Lexi begins to suspect the Near witch is real, and not gone after all, when children begin disappearing from the village.

Unfortunately, the locals fixate on the stranger who has recently showed up, an enigmatic boy that Lexi names Cole (because he won’t divulge his real name), and who becomes her companion as she tries to discover the truth behind the missing children, while protecting her own little sister Wren from joining them (and, eventually, protecting Cole from the villagers). She is helped (and sometimes hindered) along the way by two elderly sisters that were once powerful witches, and may still have some magic left in them. As time runs out she must find the old witch’s bones to put her to rest, which involves entering a haunted wood and battling the witch’s spirit and her crows. (A sort of secondary adversary is Lexi’s uncle, who is one of the village elders and leads the hunt for Cole, refusing to listen to Lexi’s protestations.)

Lexi does defeat the Near witch, and saves her sister, but only with Cole’s help. There is not much interaction with the adversary until the very end, and there’s no big journey or otherworldly exploration. She does have absent parents, though, in that her father is dead and her mother has sort of faded due to grief. And the adversary does try to trick her at the last moment.

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“If you come willingly, you will lose nothing. You will have your own thoughts, your own will. You can do as you wish. And you will be powerful. We will both be powerful together.”

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste is a solid by-the-book GU example, made a bit more refreshing and unique by the use of Caribbean folklore rather than the more ubiquitous northern European fairy folklore.

Corinne, 11, lives with her father, her mother having died long ago. Villagers on her island have always warned of the jumbies, a wide array of spirits that are said to live in the forest and be dangerous to humans. Corinne nevertheless ventures into the forest one day and is spotted and followed by a jumbie. She turns to her new friends, and a local witch, to help her.

The jumbie has taken on the form of a woman and is trying to seduce and capture her father, so Corinne must rescue him – although her task becomes even greater when she learns it is also planning to destroy all the humans, and turn them into jumbies. The spirit, called Severine, tries to win Corinne to her side (a common adversary ploy) but fails. Time is running out to save her father, and Corinne must separate from her companions to find an object that will help. She then has a final confrontation with the adversary and must use her own newly-discovered magic to defeat her. Corinne discovers she is much more than she ever imagined.

“But whatever you choose will come with a price. You will lose something: your father, your friends, or your freedom.”

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“‘Only way to be safe is to let me protect you. You can be part of my family. You can be with your parents again, and we’ll all become rich together. How does that sound?’ Monster sniffed. ‘It sounds like a join-the-Dark-Side speech.’ ‘Think about what I’m offering. A chance to be a part of something great!'”

The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst is not only a great GU example, but worth reading if for nothing else but the infinitely likable Monster character, who seems one part Stitch and one part the wombat from The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (that’s him on the cover, the cat-like thing with tentacles and saucer eyes – and don’t let anyone tell you he’s nice!).

Sophie, 12, has a secret – her parents buy and sell dreams (and nightmares) in the basement of their bookshop. Sophie herself has never dreamed…except once as a child when she stole a bottle from her parents’ shelf and dreamed of a monster in a closet, who then followed her into the real world and became her pet/friend Monster. If anyone found out that Sophie could bring things from the dream world into reality, it would bring a world of trouble down on her whole family.

One day Sophie acts carelessly and lets a dream-customer see her and Monster. This man – the adversary – likes to go by the moniker Mr. Nightmare, which should have been their first warning. Later that day, Sophie’s parents disappear, and then so do two girls at school who were troubled by frequent nightmares. Sophie, Monster and her new friend Ethan band together to investigate Mr. Nightmare and rescue those he has kidnapped, with help from a variety of fantastical dreamworld creatures. She does return home briefly in the middle of this quest, as per usual. There is also a betrayal by a companion. Her final showdown with the adversary isn’t quite alone, but otherwise the story fits (he even attempts to seduce her to his side, as shown in the quote above), and she does end up saving everyone in the end.

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“The pang of disappointment was unexpected and illogical, but no more illogical than believing her adventures the last three nights had been anything more than wild dreams. Yet with each step along the spirit roads, she’d stopped doubting, not only her eyes but herself.”

The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary places the usual Girls Underground story in the context of Japanese animism rather than outright fantasy, something I very much appreciate as an animist myself.

Saki, 13, is bored at her grandmother’s house in the countryside during the traditional festival of ancestors. Spurred on by a group of local teenagers, she rings a bell in the shrine only to find out she has set a curse on herself. On three consecutive nights, she is helped by various folkloric spirits (kitsune, tengu, etc.) to navigate the spirit world in hopes of repairing the damage. She returns to her own world each day, thereby fulfilling the GU trope of returning home in the middle of the journey. Encountering unreliable guides, dangerous witches, and a surprisingly kind ogre along the way, Saki discovers the root of the problem in a dark force taking hold in the spirit realm (the Adversary, although it is only revealed toward the end of the book). When she seems to have failed in her quest at the end of the three nights, she must venture back alone, without companions, to face the Adversary herself, break the curse, and restore health and balance to the otherworld and her own world.

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“Not once did it occur to her that she might give up the Magic Forest. People who are fortunate enough to have found the Magic Forest are also not foolish enough to give it up.”

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I recently discovered a classic fantasy book from 1969 called The Gruesome Green Witch by Patricia Coffin. I had to get a copy through interlibrary loan because they go for around $100 online. The illustrations are fantastic – in black and green – and even the text is in green ink. The creatures are based on Scandinavian folklore.

Puffin, age 10, is at her family’s summer house with her friend Mole when they find that a closet in the upstairs Green Room (a room painted all green) opens up into an otherworldly forest. They go in and immediately meet a tumpte, like a dwarf, who explains that they’ve reached the Magic Forest, only open to children. He helps them and introduces them to other denizens of the Forest. Then Puffin returns alone, with only her dog as company, and encounters a perilous fairy (specifically a huldra) known as the Gruesome Green Witch. Puffin sees the terrifying hollow back of the Witch, and is now a target. When she brings her older brother Matt to the Forest to help him, the Witch enchants him and turns him to stone. Puffin must go into the otherworld alone in search of the Witch, trick her into consuming a magical potion which will destroy her, and rescue her brother. Her parents are, of course, oblivious to any of this. Puffin enters a hollow tree and goes underground to the lair of the Witch, defeats her, and wins not only her brother back, but all the men the Witch had ever enchanted.

While the back-and-forth nature of Puffin’s visits to the otherworld give this a slightly different tone than other GU books, it does qualify as the “return to home in the middle of the journey” trope, and overall the story fits. There are even a few Alice in Wonderland references to seal the deal!

514uLnH9PnL._SL160_I’m only through Season 2 of Orphan Black right now, but it’s shaping up to be a nice Girls Underground story. It even has one of the common plot points (being an orphan) in the title! While actually featuring a number of cloned women (all played amazingly by the same actress), the clear protagonist GU is Sarah, who is pulled into a whole new world of craziness when she discovers her true identity as a clone. She spends the series trying to save her daughter from nefarious and mysterious scientists, along with her clone-sisters as companions, as well as her foster-brother Felix and possibly-not-to-be-trusted Siobhan. They seem to have done a classic feint with the identity of the adversary, first making it appear to be Leakey, but now resolving into Rachel… which makes an interesting GU/Adversary pairing, since Rachel is yet another clone. Will have to keep watching to find out if it culminates in the traditional GU ending.

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After recently re-watching New Nightmare, I thought I might re-visit some of the other installments of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and ended up on 4: The Dream Master. Terrible movie, really, but what’s interesting from a Girls Underground perspective… the main character is named Alice. Now, I’ve noticed over time that Alice in Wonderland references pop up in a lot of GU examples. In this case, it’s not just the name – Alice is a pretty solid GU (no mother, useless father, trying to save friends and brother, faces adversary alone, etc.), but more importantly, she enters the otherworld through a mirror. And in fact, manages to defeat Freddy by showing him his reflection in a mirror. I always wonder if these allusions to Alice are intentional on the part of writers with GU stories.

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“The traffic flow from folklore to fiction and film has always been heavy.” - Maria Tatar, Secrets Beyond the Door

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

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Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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