Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, legendary novelists in their own right, have long served as fictional characters in the hands of countless other novelists — along with their talented but less successful brother, Branwell. Now, award-winning author Catherynne M. Valente takes her turn with “The Glass Town Game,” a middle-school novel about the four Brontës as children.
At first, Valente sticks closely to the known facts. The children live at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire with their father, their aunt, and a maidservant named Tabitha. Often left to entertain themselves, the children create elaborate imaginary worlds, incorporating real figures like Napoleon and Wellington along with their own characters based on their toy soldiers and dolls.
But when they learn that Charlotte and Emily are to be sent back to boarding school, it seems like the end of everything. Literally everything. In the dire conditions at their school, their older sisters Maria and Elizabeth, along with some of the other students, had sickened and died. Charlotte and Emily are terrified of going back, but their financially strapped father doesn’t know what else to do with them. Branwell, a boy, can be educated at home, but the girls have to go back to school, regardless of their dread and painful memories.
At this point we’ve started to deviate a bit from reality, as the girls were not actually sent back to their old school, but to a better one. But now we leave reality completely behind. In Valente’s version of the story, when Branwell and Anne go with their sisters to the train station to see them off, they find a magical train made out of branches and precious stones that sweeps all four of them off to an adventure straight out of one of their own invented games. They plunge into a world where their beloved imaginary characters have suddenly taken on lives of their own, fighting battles, dancing at balls, involved in intrigue, espionage, and romance — a world that is no longer under their control. And they soon discover that getting home, and perhaps even their very lives, depend on learning to play by the rules of this bizarre new world as quickly as they can.
Wildly imaginative and cleverly written, with word games reminiscent of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “The Glass Town Game” is a feast for the young reader. The book is full of literary and historical references that middle-schoolers may not catch, but will probably remember once they’ve gone on to read “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” for themselves.
Valente presents her characters honestly, with all their flaws and virtues. Branwell is full of conceit about being the only boy — a quality ingrained him by his father and his culture — even as he struggles with insecurities. But the girls tend to ignore his lofty ideas and demands for control, and do their own thing. Charlotte, as the oldest surviving child, believes she should take care of the rest but doesn’t always know how to do it, and sometimes resorts to lying in sticky situations. Even gentle Anne finds herself goaded into cruelty after being kidnapped and manhandled by a ruthless villain. The children sometimes squabble but are ultimately loyal to each other, and their strange adventures, while sometimes bringing out the worst in them, gradually start to guide them toward greater understanding and maturity. And their father, though far from perfect, is shown as truly loving them and wanting them to be safe and well.
Though the fantasy worlds of Glass Town and Gondal have a religion of their own, incorporating elements of various real-world religions, the Brontës’ own Christian faith is occasionally referenced, usually respectfully. Once it’s referred to as “buttoned-down,” but to be fair, that was pretty much the case in real life. The words “God” and “hell” are occasionally used as swear words — rather anachronistically in some cases, as well-brought-up 19th-century British children were rarely prone to using God’s name in that way. (British swear words like “bloody” are occasionally used as well.) There’s some fantasy violence, but often the figures that are killed come to life again, thanks to the healing powers of “grog,” a magical liquid. The children hope to steal some of this for themselves and take it back to the real world to bring back their dead mother and sisters, but they will learn some hard lessons about the irrevocability of death in that world before the story is over.
The book is long and might be hard going for some middle-schoolers, but many who like fantasy and/or classics will enjoy the creativity and the characters, and savor the writing and the lovely illustrations by Rebecca Green. Despite the occasional flaw, Valente’s wonderfully written book deserves to become a classic in its own right.
Image courtesy of Margaret K. McElderry books. Review copy obtained from Amazon.