Friday, April 30, 2021

2022 Contenders: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu


One of the great pleasures of spending time with an author's work over the course of several books is coming to understand what's closest to that author's heart, what techniques they use, and what motifs constantly recur in their writing. I love getting to explore an author's craft in depth, to see how it grows and develops -- and what stays consistent in it from novel to novel.

Longtime readers will perhaps smile at this point and note that this introduction comes attached to a review of the new Anne Ursu book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. Though I can promise that I don't set out to give every Ursu novel my most glowing review of the year, it seems to happen anyway. I'm being honest in my assessments, but I'd be dissembling if I didn't point out near the top that in this case, the review is coming from inside the fan club.

Believe it or not, I haven't actually read everything Ursu has ever written (I still have yet to get to The Cronus Chronicles, and the two novels for adults). I have, however, read her previous three novels (2011's Breadcrumbs, 2013's The Real Boy, and 2019's The Lost Girl), and, when I set those alongside Dragomir Academy, certain similarities begin to emerge.

Maybe most notably, Dragomir Academy shares with its three predecessors what I've come to think of as Ursu's signature plot movement. Each of these four novels painstakingly constructs a full, rich, three-dimensional world -- and then pulls the rug out from under that world, revealing terrible truths behind a beautiful lie.[1] The protagonists then are forced to choose how to react to the blinding sight of these truths, whether to retreat in fear or to push forward no matter how much it hurts -- and Ursu never fails to remind the reader that pressing onward will hurt, even if it's a better choice than being willfully deceived. 

Dragomir Academy follows Marya Lupu, who lives in a village in the country of Illyria, where the citizens live in fear of a magical plague called the Dread, which emerges from the forests to massacre entire settlements. The Dread can only be held at bay by sorcerers -- men who can wield the necessary magic that counters and disperses it. Everyone in the village believes that Marya's brother, Luka, will become such a sorcerer, and a representative from the Sorcerers' Guild is indeed coming to test Luka for magical ability. But the visit doesn't go as planned, and soon Marya has been whisked away and sent to the titular Dragomir Academy, a sort of reform school for problem girls, which is perched high in the remote mountains.

At Dragomir, Marya does her best to fit in, to mold herself into what the school wishes her to be. But she and her new friend Elana Teitler begin to suspect that all is not as it seems, that there may be dark secrets that are woven into the very fabric of the Academy. As conditions outside Dragomir worsen, Marya and Elana's quest to know the truth may in fact be of life-or-death importance.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy takes as its central argument what I've come to think of as the thesis of Ursu's entire oeuvre. If I may be forgiven the reviewing faux pas of quoting myself -- because I don't know how else to say it -- evil works first by fracturing the relationships between people, and then by destroying each person's sense of their true self. In Troubled Girls, that evil takes a similar form to that in which it appeared in The Lost Girl -- a brutally oppressive culture of patriarchy that poisons everything and everyone it touches.

Tonally, Dragomir Academy is also similar to The Lost Girl, in that the icy bleakness of Breadcrumbs and the looming paranoia of The Real Boy have been replaced by a white-hot rage. If anything, Dragomir Academy ratchets up that anger, to the point that I'm not sure you could actually write anything more furious and still have it function as a middle-grade novel. Its unsparing fire can perhaps be best explained by Ursu's laconic Twitter observation that Dragomir Academy is "my Kavanaugh hearing book." If you put yourself in that mindset, Dragomir Academy's approach won't surprise you,  and book's ending, in which joy, heartbreak, victory, and defeat all collapse into a massive singularity, will also feel completely lived-in. 

It's important to note here that Ursu's flame doesn't burn everything it touches. She's too careful of a writer to take the easy way out; this is not a book in which all of the men are monsters and all of the women are saints. There are male characters who recognize the societal poison of the patriarchy and work against it, and there are female characters who are working for the status quo. Additionally, no one is perfect, and even the most noble figures in Dragomir Academy make mistakes, in a way that makes them feel like real, genuine people.

On a less heavy note, even if Dragomir Academy has fewer Easter eggs than The Lost Girl did, it's not devoid of them. Some are so barely concealed that I'm not even sure they qualify; that Marya's best friend is named Elana, in a book that lists fellow fiercely feminist author Elana K. Arnold in its acknowledgments, is maybe less Easter egg than homage. On the other hand, the fact that "Illyria," which certainly sounds like a fantasy kingdom, was also an old name for portions of the Balkans -- and that "Dragomir" is a common name in that part of the world even now -- is the sort of thing that's unlikely to come to the attention of most readers, but is delightful nonetheless. 

I don't even really try to predict the Newbery anymore; I have no idea whether or not The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy will be the book that puts Ursu up on the podium. But dangit, this is an amazing novel, and I hope it finds its way to many readers. I'll be here in the Anne Ursu Fan Club box seats, cheering it on.

Publication in October by Walden Pond Press, who were kind enough to send me a review copy

[1]There are parallels here to what Ursu once wrote, "This is what writing is like--the world looks fuzzy and obscure and then in one moment, for no reason, a corner of the veil lifts and suddenly you see the stories that have been lying there the whole time." 


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Newbery Wayback Machine: Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty (1940)


Hooooooo boy.

I don't know how well it comes across, but I've tried to be fair to these early Newbery winners. While not glossing over their flaws, I've tried to show how each one fits into the emerging story of American children's literature, note the things that each one does well, and place the books in the context of their time.

My friends, all of that fails me when I come to Daniel Boone, James Daugherty's 1940 winner. It's a self-satisfied hymn to racism and Manifest Destiny, accompanied by hideously ugly (and somehow even more racist) artwork by the author. The pacing is terrible, and the prose confuses overuse of adjectives for inspiring writing. It doesn't even work very well as a biography -- it doesn't have a timeline, assumes far too much background knowledge on the part of its readers, and sometimes fails to even refer to its many poorly described characters by their full names. 

No libraries in my consortium own Daniel Boone; I had to use the statewide interlibrary loan system to even find a copy to read. It's completely out of print, a distinction that might make it unique in the Newbery canon. Even the most deeply problematic Newbery winners stay in print -- Shen of the Sea, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, The Matchlock Gun, all are still easily available, straight from the presses. But if, for whatever reason, you want a copy of Daniel Boone, you're going to have to find it on the secondhand market, at prices that are often north of $100. 

Part of the problem is that the racism (mostly directed at Native Americans, but with jabs at African Americans as well) so thoroughly permeates the book that it would be impossible to produce an edited version, as was done for The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and Rabbit Hill, and have more than a pamphlet left. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert, who, when speaking about software designed to remove offensive passages from DVDs, opined, "Theoretically there could be a version of Fight Club suitable for grade-schoolers, although it would be very short."

Daniel Boone himself is a complicated historical figure, and certainly one about whom a fascinating biography could be written. It's hard to get a sense of the man from Daniel Boone, however -- his personality is flattened into a caricature of a frontiersman. I don't feel like I know him much better after finishing the book than I did before I began. 

James Daugherty was well-regarded in his day, both as an author and as an illustrator -- he picked up two Caldecott Honors as well, for Andy and the Lion (1939) and Gillespie and the Guards (1957). I haven't read either of those, though I do note that Andy and the Lion at least is still in print. I can say that, at this remove, Daugherty is not a major figure in the history of children's literature. If Daniel Boone is representative of his work, it's easy for me to understand why.

The only remaining question I have is this: is Daniel Boone the worst Newbery winner ever? I think it depends on what criteria you want to use. The other real contender, in my personal view, is Smoky, the Cowhorse. Smoky is probably three times the length of Daniel Boone, and might be the single least interesting book I've ever read; from a purely technical perspective, I'd argue that it's worse than Daniel Boone. But if there's a more nauseatingly racist book among the Newberys, I certainly can't tell you what it might be; I'm unable to come up with a good ethical defense of Daniel Boone, and from that perspective, it might represent the actual bottom of the Newbery barrel.