In Seanan McGuire’s brilliant (and now award-winning) short novel Every Heart a Doorway, teens who’d once escaped reality to various fairytale realms find themselves back in our world, attending a special boarding school to help them re-acclimate to “reality.” They’re all desperate to return to those places where they felt accepted for who and what they were, and one of them wants this badly enough to kill.
In structure the story is a murder mystery, but in intent it’s about the way many of us simply don’t feel like we belong in this world. We wish for a doorway, or a portal, or a wardrobe, to take us to another place, where all the things that make us different are normal. McGuire, who can pretty much write anything she puts her cursor to, does a great job conveying the kids’ pain, which of course speaks to the inner teen in all of us. No teenager feels like they belong, and most feel like freaks of some kind. It’s the same universal truth that gives Harry Potter and the X-Men their dramatic power.
But I experienced an interesting dichotomy while reading it, one that ultimately has nothing to do with the author’s intentions. I certainly identified with the characters: I was as freakish as any teen, a nerdy bookworm with thick glasses, braces and bad skin, trapped in a redneck town long before social media. My parents, who grew up during the Depression, fell into that generation’s classic conundrum: they wanted their kids to have more than they ever did, but then they resented us for not properly “appreciating” it. They certainly had no time or sympathy for kids having trouble “fitting in.”
And yet I was also struck with powerful sympathy for the parents of these desperate children. Although none appear as characters, many are described: the parents of the protagonist, Nancy, believe she was traumatized by a kidnapping, rather than escaping to the Underworld to willingly serve the Lord of the Dead. Their clueless attempts to reintegrate her into society are presented as well-meaning but disastrous, and the failure of all the parents to believe what had really happened to their children is shown as a great tragedy.
(I should clarify that this has nothing to do with the sexuality or gender identity aspects of the story. That’s an issue whose reality is beyond dispute. People are who they feel they are, no matter what anyone else, parents included, tries to make them.)
The symbolism is plain: the real world wants us to give up our childhood belief in “magic,” and that’s a terrible thing. But is it?
I’m a parent now, of three children blessed/cursed with intelligence and vivid imaginations. One in particular is likely to never “fit in.” And yet I can’t really believe that the best course for him is to totally indulge his fantasies; isn’t part of my job description to prepare him for the world as best I can? And isn’t part of that giving up belief in the childish forms of “magic”?
Or, as Bruce Springsteen says in the song, “Two Hearts”:
Once I spent my time playing tough-guy scenes
But I was living in a world of childish dreams
Some day these childish dreams must end
To become a man and grow up to dream again
That’s a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
But the Boss goes the Bible one better* by insisting that you grow up to dream again.
To me, that’s the job of a parent: to guide your children to the point that they willingly give up their childhood magic, and embrace the magic to be found in adulthood. And there is magic in it: when you see your newborn child for the first time, it casts a greater spell than any storybook realm. And when you take your love for childish scribbling and develop it into the adult skill of writing stories and novels (such as Every Heart a Doorway), that’s a charm that can affect millions.
The memory of my parents telling me that people bullying me was my own fault for being “weird” is, to this day, never far from the surface. I vividly recall their insistence that my cousin Rob, who picked on me mercilessly for reading science fiction, was just being “normal.” I often wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d had the least bit of empathy, or stood up for me against the extended family instead of shaking their heads along with them, just like the unseen parents in Every Heart a Doorway. Or if, like the kids in the book, I’d found another realm where I was accepted as I was, where “weird” was the norm.
It’s the brilliance of this book that it allows the reader to embrace these contradictory feelings without giving any easy or facile answers. Ultimately, if there is an answer, I suppose it’s this: children need guidance, and parents need sensitivity. The ratio is different for every family, but when they’re out of balance, you get real, lasting and permanent damage.
*You have no idea how much it delighted me to write this phrase.