Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
What do you think it is about fairy tales?
Are we taught to like them, do you think? Taught to think they’re important? Taught to think that, even with magical pumpkins and glass slippers, your window to snare your one true love is fleeting? That even if you give up your voice and spend your days walking on knives, a short-lived affair is reasonable recompense? That you might be curious, but if you’re too curious, death awaits. Fairy tales: where you really do start someone’s daughter, only to grow into someone’s wife and, if you’re lucky, someone’s mother. Except that you aren’t really lucky, are you? Because your husband will probably abandon your kids to a witch, who — in the grand tradition of powerful women everywhere — will obviously eat them.
As Sirens discussed at length in 2012, we — as women and non-binary people — spend a lot of time re-claiming our stories. Remembering that, in early versions, a gaggle of wise women saved Little Red from the wolf. Restructuring tales so that women’s power isn’t unusual or bad or based on chomping children. So that we have options other than being meekly grateful for our dowry as we’re married off to murderers. So that we have a role in life other than attempting to redeem our fathers’ failures.
Ugh. What do you think it is about fairy tales?
As I sit down to write this, I wonder: How many fairy tales do I really love? How many retellings? How many reclamations? Perhaps The Little Mermaid, in its Andersen form, where abandoning yourself for a dude you’ve only seen, only to wind up sea foam when he casts you aside for another, seems like maybe how things go. Maybe Dark Triumph, Robin LaFevers’ almost unrecognizable Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty is, by many measures, more terrifying than the beast. Definitely Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi, where a bro writer’s fed-up female muse makes him retell Bluebeard over and over and over again.
Which is, perhaps, the long way of saying that I’m a fairy-tale skeptic. To me, they feel like more of the patriarchy: something cautionary, punishing, limiting. Something that tells girls to be good, to be kind, to behave. That if you stay on the path, and out of the forbidden room, and you just give up your voice, you’ll get your familial reward.
And then, here we are: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill’s both familiar and not-so-much fairy tale.
It must be hard to write original fairy tales, don’t you think? Something that feels both comfy and wondrous. Something that resounds with all the import that we’ve assigned to fairy tales over the years, with gravitas, with profundity. And yet something that delights. Something that takes something so very patriarchal and transforms it into something feminist, inclusive, empathetic. How Sisyphean.
And yet, Barnhill does it. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is breathtaking: both original and reclaimed, both philosophical and whimsical, always compulsively readable.
In The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the Protectorate is a Puritan-ish society. A group of men — not necessarily white, but neither clearly not-white — runs the show: they boss everyone around, skim money off the trading, and oh yes, once a year, sacrifice the youngest child in the village to a witch — a witch that the bloody jerks don’t think exists. They purportedly made her up to terrify the villagers, and they just sort of assume that a wild animal eats the baby every year.
But there is a witch. Her name is Xan, and she has no idea why these great idiots leave a baby in the woods every year, but every year, she collects the baby and delivers it to a family on the other side of the woods, feeding it starlight across the way. How lovely is that?
Until whoops, Xan accidentally feeds one baby moonlight instead of starlight, which enmagicks the baby. Xan keeps this baby, naming her Luna, and raises her as both granddaughter and nascent witch — or rather a village raises her: Xan, a friendly swamp monster, and a perfectly tiny dragon.
So much of this story is about growing up and growing older: how children see things differently, how the older generation steps aside (or doesn’t) for the younger, how much puberty sucks, how memory can trick you or fail, how time runs out. And, of course, this story is about concrete things, too: A volcano. Seven-league boots. A woman with a tiger’s heart. A boy who thinks sacrificing babies is horrible. A girl afraid of nothing. A story told all wrong.
The Girl Who Drinks the Moon is the sort of fairy tale I wish I’d had growing up: one where women are powerful and monsters are kind and growing up is hard and the right person saying the right thing at the right time can change the world.
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.