Goldenhand: What the hell happened to Garth Nix’s editor?

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Spoilers abound!

For approximately 70% of Goldenhand, practically nothing happens. An unending chase eats up pages, it’s inevitable conclusion making the whole thing pointless and boring. Where other Old Kingdom books have very few unnecessary characters, this book has an entire cast of them, a village full of people who assist a secondary character in running away. All of them are pointless.

The chapters alternate between this chase scene an an equally endless holding pattern between Lirael and Nicholas. Where the Ferin sections (the chase scenes) have too many characters, the Lirael sections have too freakin’ few. It take roughly half the book for these idiots to stop being awkward, and while there are moments of occasional charm, it is frankly quite soon.

Essentially, the first part of the book is badly imbalanced. Ferin’s sections are packed with urgency, but that urgency can’t be felt when you know she’s going to escape, because if her message delivers everyone is going to die–which won’t happen. And it’s impossible to believe it will happen, when the momentum of her plot is ritually slaughtered every time we switch from her to Lirael, who is in a cliched romantic comedy without a shred of urgency to be seen. This tonal jarring is discarded in favor of Old-Kingdom-Flavored urgency and dread and dire peril, but the goofy comedy keeps bubbling up under the surface, diminishing the whole damn book.

Roughly 70% of the way through Goldenhand, Garth Nix’s editor woke up and the book got pretty good . I know exactly how long this took because I was keeping score. I counted 21 times when the narrative literally broke.

Nix, it turns out, has a habit of stepping out of his characters’ perspective. He turns to the reader and tells you what the characters don’t actually know, telling you that the characters don’t know it. “Neither Ferin nor Young Laska knew this,” “not acknowledging to herself,” “not noticing that behind her…” etc. About 70% in, these breaks (which completely murder reader immersion) stop happening.

Another sign of editorial napping is the way big apparent foreshadowings turn up, wave, and then evaporate. The first time this happens is when Ferin tells another character the super special secret message that she has been sacredly entrusted with from before she was even born–basically her whole destiny and plot purpose is this message, and she should really probably have died trying to deliver it. But she tells another character. A woman who disappears without a goodbye and is never heard from again.

Then there’s the moment when the Disreputable Dog reanimates her statue, goes to the window of a room, looks out at a boat coming into the Clayr’s Glacier, and turns back into a statue. When Lirael finds the statue, there is a boat pulling into the Glacier.

My brain practically exploded at that point. See, the last time a boat was in the narrative, it was full of free magic creatures chasing Ferin. Ferin, who just arrived at the Clayr’s Glacier. Oh my God, the glacier is being invaded!

But nope. Turns out the Dog was just glancing in on Nick.

Worse than this, Lirael’s brain is apparently on vacation during this whole sequence. See, she once saw the Dog statue turn into the actual Dog. And when the Dog dies, she turns back into the statue. Then the statue disappears from Lirael’s hand as she sleeps, and turns up on a windowsill in a position no Sending would have left it in. Does Lirael realize that the Dog is periodically coming back and taking the statue back with her? Nope.

On top of all these issues, there are cliche-sized holes in the narrative the Nix wove (which, again, contrasts like mad with the original Old Kingdom books). A guy and a girl of roughly the same age meet, instantly fall in love, and are having sex when the book closes (which is a crazy tonal jar, but whatever). As previously mentioned, Lirael spends half the book trapped in a corny rom-com. Both Mogget and the Dog return (the Dog after a wonderfully dramatic send off, but then she is disreputable), and though both returns are in keeping with their characters and neither is actual performs the dreaded deus ex machina, both are basically fulfilling the first half of the deus ex machina cliche. Forgivable only because their absence turned out to make the books terrible. Oh, and worst of all, Nix leaps through huge hoops to keep more powerful adult characters safely out of the narrative’s way while he lets the wheels spin in the first part of the book. There’s a big terrible flu and all the Clayr are sick, oh and Sabriel and Touchstone are on vacation for exactly as long as is necessary.

Now, in spite of all my complaining, I still loved the last third of this book. And somewhere under the unedited mess, there is in fact a very good story. Lirael goes back to the place that was once her home, and it is the same but she is far more different than she realizes. While there, she is able to make peace with the sorrow that was her childhood, and to step into a future where a boy will make everything better (did I mention the rom-com problem yet?). Then she goes on a long journey to meet a woman whose life, unlike Lirael’s was defined not by destiny but by choice–but who slowly became more and more adrift from the world and from humanity, until she was lost to herself.

There were better ways to do this. Clariel could have returned earlier in the narrative, through complicated Free Magic. Chlorr and Clariel being literally two different people was cliched. The rom com did not belong in an Old Kingdom book. But I’m happy, ’cause I got to see the Disreputable Dog.

Oh, and I hate the tagline. Practically no one dies in this book!

“One Crazy Summer” and The Birth of Consciousness

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In just about every Diana Wynne Jones novel, there is a moment in which a child looks at an adult and realizes that behind that face is another person. A flawed person, a person with their own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. A complex person who is capable of anything.

It’s a moment of consciousness, and in “One Crazy Summer,” the growth of her consciousness is the subject of the entire novel. Her consciousness of herself as a young black woman, her consciousness of the historical moment she lives in–but most of all, her consciousness of her mother.

Abandonment is never an easy thing for a child to deal with. Abandonment by a mother, which is so unusual that it means constant reminders of the child’s strangeness, is perhaps even harder to deal with than a father’s abandonment. But to hold onto hate and resentment is poisonous, and it takes all summer for her to finally release her pent up frustration at her mother, to shout her blame.

That’s when she finally learns her mother’s story. That’s when she finally sees the person under “mother.” When she understands that to be a woman is not always an easy thing, and that sometimes adults have to choose between betraying themselves and betraying those who love them.

The question of names is a recurring theme in “One Crazy Summer.” Black Panthers choose new names and call each other “brother” and “sister.” Her mother has chosen a new name, and writes her poetry under it. And her mother refuses to use her youngest daughter’s name, because it was not the name she chose for her.

But her mother has to change too, and everyone must choose their own names. She makes the choice to tell her little sister what her first name was. She gives her little sister ownership of that name. And it doesn’t disempower her mother–instead, it makes them closer.

We are all who we choose to be. Those choices define us. And every kid has to learn that the adults in their lives have made choices. And to grow up is to understand why those choices were made. Why those names were chosen.

The Goats and the Power of Adolescence

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“The Goats” is a camp book, a wilderness book. In it, two teenagers are marooned on an island by their fellow campers because they have been marked out as “different,” “immature.” They are stripped naked and left to have sex. This will normalize them.

It’s a horrifically disempowering situation to be in. But the two protagonists of “The Goats” aren’t disempowered. They flee the island on their own steam. They get by themselves, without compromising their senses of honesty, for days. They find power.

The be a teenager is to feel powerless. Teenagers are victims of their hormones, victims of their own fears. They live in a complicated and difficult world, where any friend can become and enemy and vice versa.

In “The Goats,” the characters take ownership of their lives. They turn their own powerlessness into independence, turn their forced relationship into a source of strength. The start as victims, but emerge victors.

Because of Winn-Dixie and the Non-Normative Family

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I live in China, and here the majority of families are two-parent. Not only that, but there is an assumption that the majority of families in America are also two-parent.

But the truth is that a very, very large minority of families in America are now one-parent. That’s not something that has ever existed in human history before. No one is quite sure how to deal with it. Political reactions range from trumpeting the value of the single parent to putting in place every possible incentive to keep parents together. And a huge source of anxiety for American society in the last few decades has been “how do we explain this to our kids?”

“Because of Winn-Dixie” isn’t explaining to kids how to deal with having one parent abandon them. It’s the story of how one girl came to terms with her mother leaving her. The idea of “family” was broken, and it feels as if it can never be repaired. Most kids can barely process the idea that their parents don’t know everything, and now they have to process the idea that their parents can not only do wrong, but can commit sin.

Her family broken, she has to find a new family. And because of Winn-Dixie, she does.

Skeleton Man and the Borders of Myth

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It’s one of the central problems of childhood that, no matter how sure you are of something, at the slightest hint of falsehood people will dismiss everything you say. That’s the problem at the center of “Skeleton Man,” in which no one believes that Molly is telling the truth, though she knows that she is a captive and in serious danger. But such things are so far outside the realm of the ordinary that everyone is much more willing to believe her captor.

When Molly finds herself off the beaten path, the protagonist does the only thing she can think of: she retreats into stories. She finds strength in her heritage. She knows somewhere deep in her blood that she is a captive of a Skeleton Man, and she finds the strength within herself to defeat him.

Myth is Molly’s ally in this. Myth gives her a framework in which to make sense of what is happening to her. And myth empowers her to be a heroine. The borders between dream and reality grown thin in “Skeleton Man,” and it is in the realm of myth that the protagonist can find her power. As the myth gains strength in the real world, so does she. And in myths, someone always defeats the monsters.

Out of My Mind and the Power of a Single Story, a Single Voice

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When you look at someone in a wheelchair, someone who cannot talk, someone who cannot control their bodily functions, a narrative comes to mind. “This person is disabled.” “This person is retarded.” “This person will never really be a person.” It’s an old idea, that the body is a mirror of the mind. A useless body must mean a useless mind.

Because so many of these people are helpless, unable to speak or move or eat independently, it is hard for them to challenge that narrative. It is hard for them to express themselves. They are trapped in their own heads, with all their knowledge and personality.

No person contains only a single story. The maid spends her free time reading astronomy textbooks. The murderer on death row is also a loving father. The lady at the tupperware party is a world-famous psychiatrist. It is hard to accept this about the people around us, and harder to process it, so most people avoid it if possible. But the people I mentioned above each have a voice of their own with which to tell their stories. People with disabilities like the protagonist of “Out of My Mind” are voiceless.

From the very beginning, Sharon Draper sets out to tell a story that tears apart of the idea of a “single story.” Her first-person narrator loves words, but has never spoken a word in her life. She can remember a thousand facts, but cannot say any of them without the help of a computer.

Melody is a powerful, brilliant, delightful character. From the earliest part of her life, people try to fit her into a box. They try to confine her to a single story, without paying attention to all the other stories that might be true. They see her, and they think “stupid,” no matter how smart she is.

And Melody must learn what so many people learn: that a happy life is largely about how you respond to it. You cannot choose what people do to you, and often you cannot change what people think of you. But you can, to a certain extent, choose how you respond to it. And to laugh is always better than to cry.

Holes: A Perfect Symphony

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Any one plot from this novel could be a story itself.

There’s the boy sent to a “camp” for juvenile delinquents in the desert.

There’s the interracial couple in the 19th century.

There’s the young man in Eastern Europe who breaks a promise to a gypsy woman.

There’s the woman whose entire life revolved around digging holes.

Each one could be a story, and each one is a good story. But Sachar didn’t settle for one story. He knitted them together, and he did it brilliantly. Remove one story, and the whole thing falls apart. But each man and woman’s life intersects in delicate, perfect ways, making for a perfect symphony of story.