The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.” (pg 8)

Tonight, I was sitting in our church’s tiny Ash Wednesday service, and we sang one of my all-time favorite songs. While I probably should have been reflecting on the season of Lent stretching ahead of me, or about sacrifice, or prayer, instead, I was thinking about this book. I finished it a few days ago, but after posting on Monday, I didn’t feel like I had much more to add. It was a beautiful read, but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write something as thought-provoking as I felt it deserved. It wasn’t until we started singing together that I was swept up by how the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” remind me of the journeys, like September’s, that I most enjoy reading about.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, these are the verses I love best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
and Grace will lead us home.

I remember singing this at camp when I was a child, sitting with all my friends and looking out at the White Mountains, the night sky stretching above us. The words just flowed out of me, and when we finished, I wanted to sing it again. I get that same feeling still, this powerful surging desire for adventure with all the trials and growth it brings. I long for the mysteries that test me and make me stronger and more compassionate, that will tame my wild, raw heart without chaining it too tightly.

Of course, it helps that I think we create our own grace. We make it, give it, seek it, long for it – grace is, to me, an expression of our best, bravest, most selfless hearts – it is the part of us that steps up and becomes, even if it is only in a tiny way or for a single moment, heroic. It is our conscience and our grit, our faith in ourselves and our trust in the goodness of others.

“September did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.” (p 77)

When we’re young, it’s so much easier to brave and wild and cunning and marvelous. Each of our worlds are pinpoints of light, and we are at the center, shining more brightly and callously than we could ever believe when we’re all grown up and looking back. We can’t imagine how it was that we were simultaneously so fearless and heartless and young! Our minds were hardly made up at all. We could take one road, then turn off into the darkest woods with only the tiniest of hesitations niggling in the back of our brains. We could intentionally lose ourselves again and again because somehow, some peculiar whirling internal compass compelled us to – for how else would we find ourselves if not by getting completely turned around?

Thus is the murky world of childhood. The monsters are more terrifying, or we maybe are just more helpless, and yet, we are also more resilient, more willing to risk everything for the chance at some unknowable reward. Valente has captured this gamble, this scrambling from the cold grasping of childhood to the passionate frustration of adolescence, leaving us, at the end, on the tricky cusp of adulthood.

Those of us who are already grown can see our own paths leading backwards – the enemies we have vanquished, and the ones who have vanquished us, the delicate lives we have trampled and the people we have saved, even the grace we have given and that which we have received – it’s all there for us to see and remember and regret. I can’t help but love September, with her bursting, untamed heart, even though I know, as does Valente, that the happy ending of this story is only a moment on the girl’s larger journey. There will be greater mountains for her to climb yet, and bitterness will seep in with love, but that’s the adventure of growing up for all of us, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

    1. I’m so glad to see Chicken and Frog Bookshop is doing well! I think the last time I popped over to check out the site, you were still in the process of moving into your building! Now it looks like you have so much going on! Congrats – I absolutely adore children’s bookstores and if I can figure out how to visit when I come to England next, I definitely will (although I may need to bring an extra suitcase for all the books I’ll probably buy)…

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