The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Published: Algonquin Young Readers | July 2016
Length: 400 pages
What do you do with sadness? Do you seal it off in an effort to forget? Do you allow it to flood the banks of your mind, succumbing to a form of insanity? One thing is certain: you either become twisted by sorrow until you find pleasure in others’ pain, or you allow it to move you to compassion and courage towards others who suffer.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon tells of a whole village, the Protectorate, living under a cloud of sorrow. Each year all of the village leaders, except one, insist that a new infant gets left in the woods as a sacrifice to a terrifying witch of legend. Antain, a leader-in-training in the Protectorate’s corrupt oligarchy, prefers the beauty of carpentry to the lust of power and is torn apart by these seemingly unavoidable sacrifices. While the people look outside the village for the evil they fear, Sister Ignatia remains a terror from within, imprisoning those who refuse to willingly offer their children under the guise of healing their madness.
This is a story about one infant rescued from her abandonment by the good witch Xan, enmagicked by drinking moonlight, and raised in the woods as Luna by her adopted family: Xan, the adorable Fyrian (a Perfectly Tiny dragon orphan who dreams of being Simply Enormous), and Glerk, the ancient bog monster, who quotes the poetry he sees in all the world. When hope motivates Antain towards the woods, and the desire for truth motivates Luna towards the Protectorate, will they be able to unite in stopping the true evil before it is too late? A story with parallel plots, and many characters who come together in a surprising twist, this is a saga of light and darkness, sorrow and hope.
Sorrow becomes bondage when you stuff it inside and ignore that pressing ache. This is the bondage the people of the Protectorate find themselves in as they suffer the loss of their young year after year. Sadness compounds with fear and lies as they perpetuate myths of an evil they believe themselves powerless to confront. Living under sorrow feeds the darkness. This is what Sister Ignatia discovered long ago and still uses to her advantage; embittered by her own loss she feeds her dark magic by drinking the grief of others, earning her the whispered title “sorrow-eater”.
Because of this, some, like the good witch Xan would call sorrow dangerous. Her compassionate spirit motivates her to rescue the Protectorate’s abandoned babies and join them with loving families, but her attempt to live outside of sorrow has blinded her to the evil just beyond her borders. Rather than extending her compassion beyond the infants to the people of the Protectorate, she remains willingly oblivious to their predicament. How long before this evil confronts her too?
But sadness is not all danger. One mother chose to feel her grief rather than bury it, and it brought her clarity to see what others could not. She saw the duplicity of Sister Ignatia and the goodness of Xan. She knew her child who was torn from her was still alive. Yet, the weight of her sorrow broke her mind and she remains a madwoman in the village tower missing one necessary thing—hope.
Throughout the narrative, we watch Luna grow, first into a spontaneous five-year-old with uncontrollable magic, then a young girl who believes she is ordinary but beloved, and finally into a rapidly changing pre-teen whose magic has once again started to leak out. Her magic has been hidden from her by Xan for her own protection, but all of the secrets have ill-prepared her for who she is discovering herself to be.
The story climaxes with Xan near death and the Sorrow Eater on the prowl. Luna enters the woods seeking the truth of her history, while Fyrian and Glerk fly through the woods worried about Luna and Xan. Hopeful for the first time that they may be able to stop the sacrifices, Antain and the madwoman enter the woods intent on vanquishing evil. As these various groups unite against the sorrow-eater they discover surprising weapons. Not fire from the dragon, Antain’s sword, or Luna’s magical skill set, but remembrance of the pasts they have forgotten, compassion for the sorrow that has twisted their enemy, and truth instead of secrets. These are the ingredients for hope. This hope births courage. This hope and courage spreads to all those of the Protectorate who had lived their lives under the shadows.
In a culture that fears sorrow and fabricates happiness, this exciting and tender narrative brings a valuable discussion to the table and points towards the Christ who dawned light upon those living in the shadow, and who embodied truth and offered hope. The beautiful analogies, adorable characters, and skillful weaving of story within a story within a story kept me on the edge of my seat and delighted my imagination.
One point that might bring offense to some is the creation image of this narrative. In this fantasy, the world was formed from the vast void of the Bog through poetry and when we die we become one with this Bog. Though a minor theme, it does ring of New Age philosophy. I choose to be encouraged by the Biblical elements that can also be found in this idea: our God spoke words into the void to form a world that he called good, and at the last we will be united with the Author of all this poetry.
Digital ARC courtesy of publisher