Book Review: Dreadful Young Ladies and other stories, by Kelly Barnhill

From the author of the children’s story, The Girl Who Drank The Moon, comes a collection of strange and unique short stories. My favorites are “Elegy to Gabrielle”, “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem”, and ” The Unlicensed Magician”. The weird stories by a weird author depict various states of human imperfection and harshness. Themes of love, jealousy, death, and struggle reoccur in this collection. Below is a brief summary of each of the stories in the collection, Dreadful Young Ladies and other stories. I wonder which one you will like best!

In “Mrs. Sorensen and The Sasquatch”, Agnes Sorensen’s husband, a decent and honest man, has passed away. Those attending the church service can’t help but notice the unusual guests. Agnes has always had various creatures surround her, like hawks, mice, dogs, snakes, and eventually a Sasquatch. Nosey neighbors claim to have seen a Sasquatch wearing Mr. Sorensen’s old clothes. Is the widow Agnes in love with a Sasquatch? Would Agnes leave civilized society to be with this beast in the wilderness?

“Open the Door and The Light Pours Through” is a haunting story about John, a man serving in the RAF who struggles with his own homosexuality, and his wife Angela, who is sent to Westhoughton to escape the war. The story is told primarily by the letters between them, and then what they did not say to each other. As the story progresses, the reader realizes that Angela is dead, but still have the ability to communicate and haunt John.

“The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” is a story of young love. A teenage girl and a teenage poet were in love, against her mother’s wishes, but he dies young in a fiery accident. The girl grieves deeply for him, for a time. The dead poet still appears in poems that line the walls and form the furniture in the house. Eventually, the girl comes out of a depression and moves on with her life. With her new friends, the girl burns all of the poems he had composed for her, dying a second death by fire.

The four ladies in “Dreadful Young Ladies” are just that, dreadful. Fran is selfish and neglectful; Margaret is murderous; Estelle is a snake, literally; Annabelle is observant and independent.

“The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” is a strange story about a taxidermist who is the mayor of a town whose population is declining. The town was upset with the mayor’s first wife, Margaret’s, passing, but they were not allowed to mourn her. There is something so perfectly strange about his second wife, who doesn’t seem to have a name. Now the mayor announces to the town that school is closing, but not to be sad. He plans to preserve what they still have.

“Elegy to Gabrielle – patron saint of healers, whores & righteous thieves” was a pleasant surprise in this collection. It is the story of Saint Gabrielle, who was sentenced to be executed in 1698 in St. Pierre by the Governor. Gabrielle Belain and her mother, Martinique, lived in a cottage near a whore house close to the shore. Gabrielle grew up worshiping the earth and they always had a good harvest. She became a pirate ship’s captain by fifteen, captured and sentenced to hang by eighteen. The town’s people were enamored with the pirate girl who grew up in their town, that could heal the sick, bring back the dead, make a bare tree full of fruit, and ride porpoises in the sea. She defied the Governor and he planned to execute her for it. However, Gabrielle has no plans to be executed, but to embarrass the Governor instead.

One of the longer stories of the collection is “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake”. It is the story of a man who was once married to a woman whom he loved, Ronia, and they had daughters. For whatever reason, Ronia and her husband separate and he remarried a witch who appears lovely, but is disinterest and horrid to the girls and hates Ronia. When Ronia disappears, the stepmother goes mad and locks herself in a bathroom, where she tries to cut herself with a razor and loses the baby she is pregnant with. The stepmother is checked into a mental hospital while the husband fondly remembers Ronia and his daughters when he takes a walk into the woods and disappears.

“The Insect and the Astronomer, a love story” may be my least favorite of the collection. The Professor, an insect that is becoming extinct, has the intellect and soul of a man. Since he is the only one left and feels lonely, the Insect begins a journey to find the Astronomer of his dreams. The Astronomer is live in a tower in Vingus Country, where the Insect grew up. Both are unique and opposite from what their societies consider attractive. The story covers Insect’s long journey, even an escape from becoming a meal, to find the Astronomer. Throughout the journey, they communicate through thoughts and dreams of each other, guiding their direction. Once they are together, they are complete and fulfilled. Despite the idea behind the story that no matter where you come from or what you look like, you can find love, I just found it too complicated to follow at times.

The highlight of this book is the last story, “The Unlicensed Magician”. The story is told in alternating sections of “Now” and “Then”. The main characters in the story have names that depict a single characteristic, such as Sparrow, Junk Man, Minister. Every so many years, magical children are born and the Minister takes them to use their powers up for his own purposes. One year, twenty were born and nineteen were given to the Minister; one was left for dead in a pile of trash, which the Junk Man discovered was not really dead. Junk Man takes the near-dead baby to Marla, and they nurse the magical child back to health. Thankfully, magical Sparrow is invisible unless she wants to be seen. Even then, most people do not remember seeing her, like Jonah. One cannot help but feel heartbroken each time Jonah wakes up and cannot remember seeing Sparrow or the affection they feel for each other. The Minister starts to suspect that the magical child is around and the story leads up to Minister and Sparrow’s eventual confrontation. I cannot give the end of this epic battle and love story. You will have to read it for yourself if Sparrow is set free!

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