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Lilliput by Sam Gayton utilizes the foundation of Gulliver’s Travels to tell a Girls Underground story (or perhaps, a reverse GU story, in that the protagonist is taken from her magical world into our more mundane world).
Lily is a tiny Lilliputian, kidnapped by Gulliver and brought back to London to use as proof that his wild tales really happened. She is the equivalent of about 12 years old when she tries to escape. There is sort of a double-adversary situation here – Gulliver is unmoved by Lily’s plight, thinking only of his own, but he rents the attic where he lives from a much worse man, an evil clockmaker who has enslaved his own apprentice, Finn. It is Finn who finds Lily and becomes her companion, each rescuing the other multiple times. Finn and Lily enlist the help of a friendly chocolatier and make a plan to steal Gulliver’s map, free a bird from the clockmaker’s grasp, and fly her home. But a seeming betrayal by one of her companions might ruin everything. Eventually, one of the adversaries becomes an ally. Lily escapes, but she never really definitively defeats the remaining adversary, and she doesn’t do it on her own either, so it lacks that typical satisfying GU finale.
“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.