Last year, I read Every Heart a Doorway and it spoke to me on a level that very few books have. For being as short as it is, there was something that touched my soul in that book. And I’ve recommended it far and wide since then. Considering all the feels I had for that book, I know it’s a little strange that I waited almost a year to read the “next” book. Though technically this one is more a prequel. And really it can be read as a standalone anyways. Regardless, here we are – I made sure to get to it in October because I knew it would be a little darker. And really this is about the level of “scary” that I can handle, which is to say really not much. It is a the perfect amount of gloomy though. Anyways, I’ll get to that!
“…there were a hundred, a thousand, a million different ways to be a girl, and […] all of them were valid…”
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the background story of the twins Jack and Jill, two of the main (and most dramatic) characters from Every Heart a Doorway. We start with a glimpse of their childhood and early life. A look that explains, no question, why their “door” opened for them when they were twelve. And after they choose to enter and become residents in the Moors, we watch as the next 5 years of their lives pass. We see them have a chance to make choices based on what they truly want, who they truly are, and not who they were molded to be by their parents. But at the same time we see how those early experiences have marked them, for life, and shape the choices they think they’re making for themselves. It’s incredibly, heartbreakingly, meaningful and symbolic.
First, let me just talk about the writing. McGuire has mastered the art of the fairy tale-like storytelling voice. It’s got that “I’m the teller of this tale” narrator type POV style that is a little bit didactic and also simultaneously fantastical and moral (in the sense that there is a clear moral and the story is meant to teach it to you). It has that same transporting feel that any fairy tale gives you; it’s there in a much darker way, but that doesn’t take away the sense of wonder you get as you read. I don’t know how she walked that line, but it was so very cool. Honestly, I loved the way she built the atmosphere and told the tale with the exact opposite of the happily ever after trope. All in all, nicely gothic. (However, take heart, if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway, you know the twins story ends with their very own perfectly twisted happily ever after.) Plus, there are clear references to/restructurings of the myths around Dracula and Frankenstein. The way they are recognizable but recreated adds a little extra fun to the reading experience. And last, the way that gender and sexuality are fluidly and open-mindedly addressed, like (as it should be) anything goes and is the norm, is one of my favorite things about the writing in this little series. It continues here in beautifully accepting form.
The other thing I love is reminiscent of what hit home for me in Every Heart a Doorway. I felt like the message in that book was one for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong – in their skin, in society, in their family, anywhere. It offered an escape and a message of hope that you are not alone and that there is somewhere out there where you can belong (or at least “not belong” together). That message is continued with strength here. The sarcasm and clear disdain for gender stereotypes, unreasonable parent/societal expectations, caring too much about appearance (and changing everything to meet those expectations/appearances) literally warmed my soul. Like, I heated up while reading it – out of anger at Jack and Jill’s parents, a little, but also out of fuzzy appreciation in my heart for the way McGuire addressed/handled these topics. Honestly, the first parts, before Jack and Jill go through the door, held so many deep truths. It was frustrating and beautiful in equal measure. For being so short, the number of important themes and messages about nature vs nurture and the importance of being allowed to naturally grow into who you are, and how deep the need to love/be loved for that runs (for everyone, though is manifests differently for us all), is astounding.
Same as before, the profundity of feeling McGuire packs into in these short novels just gets me. I love them so much and I am so glad that she is continuing to write more. I said this with the last one and I’ll say it again for this one – read this book. It is so, so worth it.
“I can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own. It can be easy, in the end, to forget that children are people, and that people will do what people will do, consequences be damned.”
“The thought that babies would become children, and children would become people, never occurred to them. The concept that perhaps biology was not destiny, and that not all little girls would be pretty princesses, and not all little boys would be brave soldiers, also never occurred to them.”
“The trouble with denying children the freedom to be themselves – with forcing them into an idea of what they should be, not allowing them to choose their own paths – is that all too often, the one drawing the design knows nothing of the desires of their model.”
“Children have preferences. The trouble comes when they, as with any human, are denied those preferences for too long. […] Having half of everything she wanted denied to her for so long had left her vulnerable to them…”
“A single revelation does not change a life. It is a start.”