LitStack Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

by Sharon Browning

Every Heart a DoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway
Seanan McGuire
Release Date:  April 5, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-8550-5

I’m just going to come out and say it:  this little book is pert’ near perfect.

You’ve heard the tales, of fairy abductions and changelings, of witches’ tricks and those children who simply disappeared, never to be seen again.  Children cross over into many different worlds, the places of Logic and Nonsense, the lands of Wickedness and Virtue, down rabbit holes or through mysterious doorways or from clearings set deep in a forest.  Often, they never return.  But if they do, for whatever reason, they are forever changed.

Nancy Whitman is one of those children who disappeared.  She doesn’t really want to be at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, but it’s better than being at home.  Everyone at home tries to do the right thing for her, but she’s no longer the girl they knew, the girl they insist she still is.  She’s changed, and she’ll never be that girl again.

There are two homes set up in North America for the children who return to this world:  one for those who wanted to come back, and one for those who didn’t.  Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children takes in those who didn’t want to return, those who are desperately searching for the way back to what they believe is their true home.  Children like Nancy.

We first see Nancy when she arrives at Eleanor’s Home, confused and lost.  We piece together her story as she meets the other kids – teen-agers, mainly –  and learns from the two women who run the place about what really happened to her, and what her options are going forward.  The characters she meets – and they are indeed, incredibly wrought characters – are at times hilarious, likeable, intriguing, disturbing, and tragic (what would you expect of kids who spent times in lands of Nonsense, or lands of Wickedness?).

There is Nancy’s roommate Sumi, as different from Nancy as day from night.  Sumi is frenetic, full of color and kookiness, but also abrupt and outspoken with few, if any, boundaries.  There are the twins, Jack and Jill (actually Jacqueline and Jillian), identical in face but complete opposites in style and temperament.  There is a girl too beautiful to look at, a shy girl from a land of high Reason who is unforgiving, and a boy with a bone flute who can make skeletons dance.  And then there is mysterious Kade, who has been at the school the longest and who knows things; his parents do not want him back.

The pair of sisters who run the home, Eleanor and Lundy, are also unique and strange; they know firsthand what their charges are going through, and are committed to helping them adjust to life back in the normal world – as much as possible.  But just when you think that Every Heart A Doorway is going to be a book about a bunch of misfit kids… something happens.  Something bad.  And that’s just the beginning.

For such a small book as Every Heart a Doorway is (actually a novella rather than a novel), it packs a huge punch.  Woven amongst these marvelous characters is a story that captures whimsy and heartbreak, elements of the tragic and the grotesque, fairy tale and myth, murder, attraction, the fantastic and the dramas of youth present in every school with teenagers.  Just when  you have it pegged, it gets a little deeper, a little darker, a little more bizarre.  And it’s wonderful.

Yet at the heart of Every Heart a Doorway is the ache of wanting to belong.  The wards of Eleanor’s Home for Wayward Children are truly lost, torn from beloved lands that were larger than life, and returned to a mundane world where they can no longer fit in.  Trapped, their yearning to return is palpable.  Yet even more wrenching is their hope:  hope that they can maybe, against all odds, find the portal that will lead them back to where they belong.  It is hope that drives them, and hope that tears them apart.  As Sumi tells her new roommate:

Hope hurts.  That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out.  Hope is bad.  Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.  Ely-Eleanor is always saying ‘don’t use this word’ and ‘don’t use that word,’ but she never bans the ones that are really bad.  She never bans hope.

When Nancy speaks of the world into which she passed, and when her thoughts turn to the place she now thinks of as home (as they often do), we understand the bittersweet snare of hope.  When we see her fall back on coping mechanisms she learned in this other world, and how they comfort her, and anchor her, and keep her safe, we understand why she cannot give up on hope, regardless of how much it hurts.  And we ache along with her.

Every Heart a Doorway is listed as a Young Adult book, and so it should be – it speaks to the very depth of teen-aged angst.  But it also speaks to all of us who can hearken back to another place, another time, where we felt safe and content and loved.  If a doorway opened for you to that other place, would you step through?

A marvelous read, this.  Pert’ near perfect.

~ Sharon Browning

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