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the girl who drank the moon

31 january 2017

Children's fantasy fictions are never original, and since their roots are in folktales, they probably never have been. Kelly Barnhill's Girl Who Drank the Moon, the 2017 Newbery Medal winner, is no exception. It's got a little Harry Potter, a little Wizard of Oz, some Hunger Games, some Kneeknock Rise, a helping of "The Lottery," a dash of The Giver, some scraps of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, a dose of The Graveyard Book (and thus of The Jungle Book). And a hint of the film Quills, bizarrely enough. None of those works (except maybe Quills) would win great originality prizes, either.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is rich in situations, somewhat poorer in plot. We start in a village known as the Protectorate, which is governed by some corrupt Elders and some sinister totalitarian Sisters. The protectorate lies between an impassable Bog and an evil Forest. To propitiate the horrid Witch who rules the Forest, every year the Protectorate must expose their youngest-born child to sacrifice.

The corruption stems from the fact that there is no Witch, as the Elders know very well, and the whole sacrificial deal is just an imposition in terrorem to keep the population abject. One young Elder-in-training named Antain is profoundly troubled by the annual ritual, though he doesn't grasp that the Witch is a fiction; he thinks that the Protectorate should rise up and fight her. One mother, her daughter commandeered to be a sacrifice, goes mad and is shut up by the Sisters in their Tower.

Yikes! Except of course there is a Witch, an old woman named Xan, and she is a very good Witch indeed, ever so loving and full of love for all the world and love teems from every pore of her being. (The love-flood that spills out of every one of the novel's 386 pages proves a little hard to bear.) She adopts the madwoman's daughter, naming her Luna after the baby is inadvertently exposed to moonlight, turning her too into a Witch. Luna proves so impossible to raise (even with the help of a tiny dragon named Fyrian and a phlegmatic swamp monster named Glerk) that Xan has to cast a spell on Luna's magic, suspending it cocoon-like till she reaches the age of thirteen, when it will burst out in great power.

That device – the repression of full womanly abilities till age 13 – is the most compelling thing in Barnhill's novel, a stark metaphor for the puberty that children's-novel heroines (even Luna, in the long run) are never quite allowed to get to these days. Aside from the tensions inside Luna's being, the book is very long and very much a "told" story, its narrative voice hovering outside the characters and explaining dynamics and backstories – rather than letting the characters experience and discover them. It's also, as I alluded, a precious book – maybe not full-on twee, as Harry Potter can become, but oversoaked and with surprisingly little comic relief.

But most dissatisfying of all is the failure of The Girl Who Drank the Moon to develop a real story. With all kinds of dynamic characters running around, and the potential for some fraught situations, no real plot gets generated till around page 200, when Antain resolves to go out into the Forest and kill the Witch. Everybody heads for the Forest at that point, but except for Antain they don't go there with much purpose; it just seems obligatory for all the characters to start milling around in the Forest and encountering one another randomly. To be fair, a lot of fantasy fiction seems to reduce to characters milling around in Forests, but they usually have some goals that intersect and conflict. And even the Antain-Witch struggle dissipates quickly when Antain immediately encounters Xan ("magicked" into the form of a swallow) and befriends her, not quite knowing who she is. A reckoning eventually occurs, the bad are discomfited, the good live happily ever after – except for Xan, who dies full of love for those who survive her, rather like Charlotte in E.B. White's Web.

For all its flaws, The Girl Who Drank the Moon is good at visually evoking its world. I would predict that a big summer- or Christmas- kids' movie adaptation full of splashy CGI is in its future. It could be better than the book.

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill: Algonquin [Workman], 2016. PZ 7 .B26663 Gi