“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairy tale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets rewarded.”

I had a bit of a meaningful synchronicity happen around reading The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. I had found it during one of my regular searches for GU books online, and reserved a copy at the library. The very day my hold came in, a close friend told me about a book she had found quite randomly which she thought I’d really resonate with – The Hazel Wood! I knew right then this was likely to be something special, and it was. I read a lot of GU books of course, and most of them are enjoyable enough, but only a few stand out enough to earn a permanent place on my bookshelf, and this is one of them. Not only does it follow the archetype beautifully, it delves into the Power of Story in a world where the stories are mostly dark and cruel and perilous – something I noticed a few other reviewers balking at, but which suits me very well.

Alice Proserpine, 16 (and what a nod to the GU archetype right there in her name, with references to both Alice in Wonderland and the myth of Persephone – called Proserpine by the Romans) has lived an unstable life, being dragged from one town to another by her mother, constantly seeming to be on the run from who-knows-what. Her grandmother Althea was the infamous author of a rare book of fairy tales, but Alice has never met her, although she has tried to connect with her by reading every fairy tale she could find. Shortly after Althea dies, their normally unlucky, difficult life gets even stranger, and Alice’s mother is stolen. Alice must team up with a boy from school who’s obsessed with Althea’s book, to uncover the secrets her mother had hidden – secrets about the fairy tale world called Hinterland which is more real than she could have imagined.

They receive cryptic warnings and directions along the way, there is strange magic afoot, and Alice suffers a devastating betrayal. She discovers that she is deeply connected to the Hinterland, and is able to find it where others failed. She meets the Adversary, who causes her to forget herself for so long it seems there is no hope. But with some help from her companions, she wakes up and manages to tell a new story that not only liberates her, but everyone else in that world. Because ultimately, it’s a world built on Story, and once she understands that, she truly knows herself and gains volition. These are some of the most important themes of the Girls Underground trope, which is part of what makes this book so special to me.

I’ve tried to keep this vague because I don’t want to spoil anything, and this book is really worth discovering for yourself, so I highly suggest you do that!

“A hundred times she had learned the ways and turnings of the Labyrinth and had come to the hidden room at last.”

I read The Tombs of Atuan  – the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy – many years ago, but for some reason neglected to add it here. Re-reading it, I find that it is missing some of the common GU elements, but matches more closely the mythological versions of the story, which hadn’t yet developed some of the details we find in modern examples.

Tenar is taken at the age of five years old to be a priestess of the nameless gods who inhabit an underground labyrinth beneath a complex of temples. Her name is taken from her, her identity “eaten.” She spends most of her time alone. When the wizard Ged comes to steal a treasure from the gods, Tenar ends up helping him escape in defiance of both the temple priestess Kossil (a sort of intermediary adversary) and the Nameless Ones themselves (the real terror). She fights against becoming lost in the labyrinth, and the onset of despair. She also helps Ged restore a sacred artifact that might benefit the whole world. When she finally emerges from the underground tombs, with Ged’s help, the entire system crumbles into dust as the Nameless Ones are defeated.

I am working on a very special project involving the Girls Underground archetype (stay tuned for an announcement coming in the next couple months!) and as part of the preparation, I decided to do a little statistical analysis of the GU examples I have covered so far on this blog – almost 250 of them now! Thought I would share some results here in case anyone else is interested.

I have covered 160 books, 73 movies and 12 TV shows/series (about a quarter of which I classified as Honorable Mentions). Books are obviously the primary GU medium, and as I already knew, most are in the young adult/middle grade fantasy category. About 75% were written by female authors. Well over half of the movies are in the horror genre. Looking through the titles across mediums, I found 31 examples with “titular girls” (name of the girl in the title) and 8 more that simply had the word “girl” in the title.

The girl goes literally underground in at least a third of the stories (I didn’t always note this, especially early on, so I bet the percentage is even higher), and the story takes place entirely in an underground world in 11 of them. Twice as many as that take place mostly within a single house. While the archetype is based on the idea that the girl travels to another world, this is only technically true in little over a third of the examples – it’s almost as common for magic to bleed into this world, or for her to live in an already magical world (though in those cases, she often will still travel somewhere different within that world).

The girl is most often either a pre-teen (10-13) or teenager, though about 20% are adults, and a few are younger children. The Adversary is a male in 59% of the total examples, and female in 23% – the rest are either a group or ambiguous. But the ratio of male to female Adversaries is highest among older teens, and lowest among children and pre-teens.

There are a few names that are especially popular for the protagonists of Girls Underground stories. Alice is the most frequent, but this is probably due to the connection with Alice in Wonderland – as I’ve said before, a lot of GU authors are clearly aware of the archetype on some level, and the similarity of their work with the classics of the trope. Particularly exciting for me personally was finding that there are 5 Sarahs and 5 Kates (along with 3 Katherines) – which account for both my first and middle names! Laura/Laurie, Lily/Lilian, and Sophie/Sophia also make 5 showings each. And Claire/Clara, Lisa/Liza, Meg, Alex, Hannah and Heather have 3 or 4 each.

The City of Lost Children is such a strange, dreamlike movie that I had a hard time discerning the plot enough to decide if it qualified as a Girls Underground story. Ultimately I consider it an Honorable Mention, simply because the girl in question isn’t really the clear protagonist for much of the movie – in fact, it seems at first that this is more of a story about her companion, or that she is the companion. But, it also hit some salient points.

Miette, a young orphan, is part of a gang of child thieves living in a dark, disturbing urban landscape. One day she rescues a carnival strongman named One and gets pulled into his quest to find and save his adopted little brother, who has been kidnapped by an evil man who sucks the dreams from children. At one point, due to a mind-controlling poison, One turns against her, which is the classic betrayal-by-companion. She also acquires at least one other companion for a time. There are multiple smaller adversaries but I think the dream-stealer is the main one, and Miette ends up confronting him alone in the dream realm and defeating him.

 

I picked up Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody with some skepticism, fearing from the description that it would be trying too hard to be edgy, but it completely won me over and I stayed up late last night just to finish it because I couldn’t wait another day!

Sorina, 16, is the sole illusionist for a travelling city-sized carnival famous for its debauchery and magic. Her “family” consists of people she created as permanent illusions, who all perform together in a freak show, each one having some kind of special ability. She doesn’t remember her birth family, and was adopted at 3 years old by the manager of the carnival, who is often distracted by his duties. After one of her illusions is murdered (impossibly, since they shouldn’t be real enough to die), Sorina embarks on an investigation to find the killer, while also working to save her foster mother from a progressive illness, and navigating a budding relationship with a fellow magic-worker named Luca who becomes her companion.

The carnival is a fascinating world full of strange characters and excitement and intrigue, but the real threat may be coming from beyond its boundaries, in the lands of kings and princes and politics. She is guided along the way by fortune-tellers and charm-workers. There is a devastating betrayal. The stakes are raised as more people die. When the adversary is revealed, Sorina must defeat them – but she is never truly alone, for her illusions are not just friends or family, they are a part of her.

Aside from being a pretty classic Girls Underground story, this one stood out a little – not just for the exotic setting, but for the protagonist’s inner struggles (she is not only an orphan but a genuine freak) and the unusual relationship she develops with Luca, who is somewhere on the asexual end of the spectrum – not something you see very often in the YA fantasy genre which is usually oversaturated with relatively commonplace sex and romance subplots.

Tabula Rasa (the Belgian tv series on Netflix) is perhaps the defining example of the sub-trope of “forgetting herself” in the Girls Underground archetype – its protagonist Mie has retrograde amnesia; she can’t remember anything, and it may be her downfall.

Mie, an adult, has suffered memory loss due to a car accident. As she sits in a mental hospital, suspected in the disappearance of a man she can’t remember, she slowly pieces together the events that led there. Her family can’t be trusted – she is on her own. Her daughter has been acting disturbingly since the accident and she may have to save her. Her companion in the present is a pyromaniac who befriends her on the ward – in the past, it is the man she may have killed. Time is running out as we find out that he may still be alive, and she must remember in order to help him.

Because of the mystery angle to this show, we don’t discover who the real adversary is until the last episode. And unfortunately, Mie does not defeat them herself, meaning that this is more of an honorable mention, all told. But there is a betrayal by a companion, a return to home (in the form of many flashbacks, and when Mie briefly escapes), and of course, she forgets herself. Not to mention, it is a pretty engaging story, and pretty terrifying to imagine being that adrift from moment to moment.

The Wood by Chelsea Bobulski was one of the rare times that I didn’t mind a small romantic subplot in a YA novel – it didn’t take over the story, it was actually a meaningful interaction between the characters, and it didn’t end “happily ever after”! Bravo. Too many YA books these days (especially in the “supernatural” or “fantasy” categories) are entirely consumed by facile romance.

Winter, 16, has taken over guardianship of a magical woods, from her father who disappeared almost two years ago without a trace. They are from a long line of hereditary keepers of this secret, bound to patrol the liminal space between the worlds for travellers who accidentally slip through portals from other lands and other times. The wood is dangerous for both guardians and travellers alike, and Winter must follow strict rules to stay alive.

One day she meets a traveller who is searching for his own missing parents, and Winter fatefully decides to break some rules and help him, even hiding him in her house from her grieving and distracted mother. As they compare notes on their mutual family problems, they uncover a plot against the whole system of humans and magical folk who mutually protect the wood. Winter faces off against the adversary, but there is still one more secret – and a betrayal – that will shake the foundations of her world.

The Boneshaker by Kate Milford may be the first Girls Underground book I’ve come across where the Adversary is the Devil himself (Old Scratch makes the occasional appearance in GU movies, but a search of my book profiles turns up nothing). Definitely appropriate for a story set in 1913 Missouri and focusing on an abandoned town at a crossroads!

Natalie, 13, lives in the town of Arcane (just a ways down from the aforementioned crossroads), where it is said a local musician once made a deal with the Devil. One day a strange medicine show comes into town, featuring all sorts of wonders and entertainments (the mechanical oracle is especially intriguing). During an intense few days, Natalie begins to realize her mother has been seriously ill for some time, and is horrified to find that her father is willing to do anything to cure her – even deal with the suspicious Doctor Limberleg (what a fantastic name!) who runs the show. With her frenemy companion (and that wily musician) she sets out to uncover the secrets of the mysterious doctor and save not only her mother, but the whole town (and possibly more).

There is a slow revelation of the town’s dark past, and the role Natalie’s own family plays – she is really the only one equipped to stop this monster. Also, an emphasis on storytelling and its vital importance.

When the Devil finally shows his true self, she must confront him alone at the notorious and liminal crossroads, resist the temptations he offers, and put an end to a long reign of evil.

 

Just resurfaced after an extended Alice Days holiday, and had a chance to update my list of Alice movies with several new ones (mostly awful, but one really interesting short art film from the 80s). Check it out (toward the bottom of the page) the next time you need an infusion of Wonderland!

Not a Girls Underground song specifically, but this little Tom Waits ditty about life in the underground feels appropriate nonetheless.

“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.

The Girls Underground Story Oracle


Coming soon: an exciting new oracle deck based on the Power of Story! Made possible by Kickstarter.

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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