This post took me longer to write than usual. Mostly because this book took me longer to read than usual. Partly that would be because I read it at a family gathering in Toronto where I knew I’d be unable to write my dissertation, and it’s a long book (535 pages). Since I was at this gathering I didn’t have the unlimited time to really plunge into a story the way I used to. I had to pick my times and read a few pages here and a few pages there in between other tasks and visits. (Aside 1: I really did enjoy the family gathering. It’s just that it did cut into my reading time.) (Aside 2: When I was a kid and I saw grown-ups reading like that I was totally appalled; how could you put down Harry Potter without just reading it straight through? Now, I’ve become one of those appalling adults myself. So it goes.)
But the other reason I was reading so slowly is because this is a book which asks you to think. Don’t get me wrong: this is a fun, MG novel and it’s easy to get caught up in the plot and, particularly, in the characters– I’d have enjoyed reading it straight through in a gulp when I was a kid. But it’s also a thinking book, and reading a thinking book slowly has its advantages. To be honest, I actually considered reading it through a second time before writing it up, but you all need to know about it NOW, not whenever I’m able to get through a second reading.
And so, now that I have read it through and thought it through, let’s talk about The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Rebecca Green. (Hint: we’re going to see more of Rebecca Green shortly.)
Folks, this is absolutely one of the best MG novels I’ve read since… oh, probably since Fairyland. (Yes, we’ve already noted many times over that I have a tendency to fangirl over Cat Valente.) It’s filled with what I consider traditional features of Cat Valente’s writing, including her fascinating tendency towards allusiveness, her beautiful prose (if I could figure out how she combines such lyricism with a fun, conversational tone I’d be a very happy lady), and, perhaps most strikingly, her innovative, distinctive characters, each with a unique and believable voice. In other words, the quality of the book is very much in line with what you expect from Cat Valente. What stands out in this book and makes it different from all other Valente books I’ve read is really in the subject matter. Whereas Fairyland and Deathless, for example, are well-researched books in their own rights, they derive from a mishmash of sources. Glass Town, by contrast, while it does have its diverse sources (I defy you to identify every allusion to English, and, to an extent, French, literary, military, and scientific history in the book), is largely faithful to one work: the Brontë children’s games.
“Games?” I hear you ask. I know, I too, was stunned to hear that the Brontë children were engaged in extensive and in-depth imaginative games together, games which they wrote about in detail. I was even more stunned to learn that there has already been a children’s book published about the children and their games, The Return of the Twelves, which I briefly wrote about over here: Saturdays. I’m not going to go into the history of those games here, as I’m no expert on the subject, but I will point you to Cat Valente’s article describing what those games were like, and how a modern audience might understand them: The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente Read it, please. I’ll be here when you’re done.
Now that we know a bit more about the children’s games and the children themselves (believe me, I’m thrilled that Branwell and Anne get some stage time as well as Charlotte and Emily), let’s talk a bit about what happens in the book. Without giving too much away, what happens is that the children, traumatized as they are by the terror of returning to the school which effectively killed their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, somehow end up in the world they had created: a world containing Glass Town, Gondal, Angria, and all the other regions and bits and pieces they’d imagined into being. And among those “bits and pieces” are the inhabitants of Glass Town and its environs, particularly the twelve wooden soldiers who were their favourite toys at Haworth (the home of the Brontës) and were effectively the conduits for the children’s imaginative games. All of them had names (Crashey, Gravey, Rogue, etc.) and all were alive and real in Glass Town. The children, of course, were the odd ones out in this world: in Glass Town, everyone was of something, whether wood or cloth or metal or books or something else entirely, and the children, being of flesh and blood, were called “Breathers,” and, having invented this world, now had to learn how to live in it and work with its rules.
But the incredible cast of characters isn’t limited to the twelve soldiers. No. If you read Cat Valente’s essay (linked to above– but you did read it, didn’t you?), then you’ll know just how amazingly detailed these games were, and, yes, Cat weaves in a huge assortment of the characters the children invent or people they encountered in their lives, including editors (Mr. Bud and Mr. Tree), Napoleon and Wellington (whose conflict is at the heart of the novel), Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Young Soult the Rhymer and so forth. In true Cat Valente form, as these characters are formed, form themselves, and form the book, I can’t quite tell what is historical, what is derived from the children’s writings, and what is hers: it’s all been stewed together over the fires of her imagination until it has become something wonderful and original, but, again, without ever losing the true Brontë flavour at the heart of the text. There is a source at the heart of this book, and that’s the Brontë’s writings, and she remains fully, wholly faithful to that source.
To step back from the analysis a bit, I just want to tell you that I can’t remember the last time I savoured a book so completely, read it as slowly and carefully as I could so as to glean the sense from each word and each sentence. And I can’t remember a time I encountered a MG novel so wholly trusting of its audience. Is Branwell bad? (Oh man, I could write a whole other post comparing him to Edmund in Narnia, but I’ll spare you my thoughts on that for now.) Is he a traitor? Is Napoleon the Bad Guy and Wellington the Good Guy? What do we make of Anne’s favourite: the young princess Victoria? Cat doesn’t tell you what to think at all. She trusts her readers, young and old, to engage in conversation with the Brontë children and see what they think for themselves.
In other words, folks: when you get a chance, read this book. Choose a time when you think you’ll really be able to lose yourself in its prose and characters and ideas, and then surrender to the pleasure of just reading, as you did before you grew up and became a poky adult with responsibilities.
Warning: it’s a bit compulsively shareable. I’ve already purchased four copies because I keep giving them away so as to increase the chances of having someone else to talk to about it.