“We can go to Cowan Bridge School and learn a lot of rot we already know and freeze and starve and probably die of consumption, or we can get on a fairy train driven by our Christmas presents.”
The four siblings called it The Glass Town Game, but it was more than just a simple game of make-believe. A gift of twelve wooden soldiers gradually turned into an entire imaginary world, the result of years of creativity and storytelling. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Bramwell took everything they could learn from fiction and history and current events outside their tiny little village of Haworth, and poured it all into Glass Town, a place of intrigues and doomed romance and heroism, where wooden soldiers die bravely in battle against Napoleon, only to spring back to life for more adventures the next day.
You can imagine the children’s surprise when they’re whisked off to a world that’s exactly like Glass Town.
Well almost exactly, except for a few minor details. Like the Napoleon with guns for arms, riding a giant fire-breathing porcelain rooster. That one’s new.
Catherynne Valente wrote this out of a deep and abiding love of the entire Brontë clan and their work, so it’s helpful to know at least a little bit about their family before reading it. The siblings didn’t exactly have the happiest life. Their mother died young, and while their father did what he could to provide, the family was poor and isolated enough that Glass Town became an escape for the four of them.
And there’s something they desperately want to escape from when the book starts: Charlotte and Emily’s return to Cowan Bridge School. The school featured in Jane Eyre was based on Charlotte’s actual experience; she and Emily had already attended with their two beloved older sisters, who both died of a typhoid outbreak before they could get home. So it’s not hyperbole to say that returning to school was something that could actually kill them.
Fortunately, when Branwell and Anne were walking them to the carriage, they all took a side trip to see the train station and ran into a bad-tempered spy made entirely of magazines, being arrested by the children’s own wooden soldiers. Who wouldn’t decide to board an impossible train to an imaginary place after that?
“We’re only in an insane, upside-down world populated by our toys, our stories, and Napoleon riding a giant chicken on fire. Nothing as bad as School.”
The story is a Victorian fantasy adventure in the style of the Narnia books, something that can appeal to children who want the characters to be in real peril when traveling through a fantastical setting. There are also enough quirky characters using cute mashed-up words like “intropresent” and “fantavulously” to fill one of Walt Kelly’s Pogo stories.
Older readers may also enjoy some of the more clever puns (clever, but still a little goofy. Time Flies, anyone?), and the little nods to historical events and the Brontë’s writing. The names that Charlotte and Emily use to infiltrate a high-society party are just two examples; the name of the city that Glass Town is currently at war with is another.
What I think ties together the children’s fantasy and all the historical references is the gloriously bizarre setting. This is the author who wrote The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making after all. A full explanation of the history of Luggage Rights and why it’s vitally important to always be polite to your suitcase is the least weird thing you’ll run into.
“O Glorious Baggage!” Charlotte read out in her sweetest voice. “Blessed Childe of the Great Trunk! Scion of the Ancient House of Lug! I, while acknowledging Your Individual Right to Free Will, Self-Determination, Parliamentary Representation, and Bodily Autonomy, do Most Humbly Beg of You to stop mucking about and show me what you’ve got!”
(Okay, that’s…actually pretty weird. The whole section about Luggage was also one of my favorite parts.)
The four siblings are already a little overwhelmed by meeting characters they invented and getting to walk around a city they designed (borrowing heavily from descriptions of every famous building in every big city that caught their fancy). But then there’s so much of this world that’s unfamiliar, or alien, or completely unlike anything that they’d ever even thought of, much less written about.
In this world, food can be things like fire or storm clouds or crystal flutes. This is a reality where people are everything except flesh. There are men made out of iron or broken brandy snifters, women made out of roses or playing cards. Cities are glass and paper, the patchwork fields around the city are a literal patchwork quilt of brocade and velvet and little ribbon rivers. Emily and Charlotte wear metallic paint and pretend to be gold and silver maidens at the Wildfell Ball where they dance with the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron in a scene where Valente’s gorgeous prose kept making me smile.
…it was all so much grander and bigger than just the four of them huddled together in the playroom at the top of the stairs. So much thicker, so much wilder. She was, against all logic, walking through the insides of their four heads, and the wine there tasted wonderful.
The characters can be infuriating sometimes and make terrible decisions, particularly Branwell who’s desperate to prove that being just eleven doesn’t mean that he isn’t important and in charge. But none of the four siblings are older than twelve (and history shows none of them lived to be forty), so they act exactly the way children do: impulsively, emotionally, sometimes selfishly but only because they’ve suddenly found a magical potion that would even keep grownups from acting rationally. And over and over they actually have sympathy for horrible people, since the moment you learn to be glad when someone horrible is in pain is the moment when part of your childhood dies.
It’s a story filled with romance and heartbreak, adventure and skullduggery, bravery and betrayal, a princess in a tower and a General riding into battle on a giant lion made of water. In short, it’s exactly the kind of story that children would write.
The charming artwork for the cover and interior illustrations was done by Rebecca Green.