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Every Heart a Doorway


Every Heart a Doorway

If you, like me, were horrified at the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes her adventure was just a dream, this novel is for you. That sort of nonsense wasn’t in the book. L. Frank Baum knew perfectly well that Oz was real, and he wrote 13 more books to prove it.

A fantasy lover since childhood, I’ve always believed that alternative worlds were possible and that portals, or doorways, to other lands could crop up anywhere: a tornado, a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, an oil painting, a railway station. I used to hope I’d find one in a honeysuckle bush. The wildly ingenious idea behind Seanan McGuire’s EVERY HEART A DOORWAY is to explore what happens to children after they’ve been to strange worlds like Oz or Narnia or Wonderland. Expelled from their versions of paradise, they cannot find a way back.

Some of them wind up in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Miss West herself was a traveler between worlds, so she understands these children’s longing to return to the lands they regard as home. But her school’s mission is to pacify the bewildered parents of the girls (mostly girls) and boys who disappeared and reappeared so mysteriously, and to help her charges “move on.”

"EVERY HEART A DOORWAY is a great read, equal parts wistful, grisly and flat-out funny. McGuire is a terrific writer, and she lards her book with great thumping chunks of irony."

Through the eyes of a new girl, Nancy, we take in the inhabitants of Miss West’s establishment. Some of the children have danced with unicorns and rainbows, and are as silly and shallow as your average high school Popular Girl. Others, like Nancy, reveal a darker side. She went to the Halls of the Dead (her hair is bone white streaked with black); her friend Kade went to Fairyland (only to be expelled when they found out he was a boy dressed as a girl); the twins Jack and Jill (both girls) to The Moors, a realm straight out of 1940s horror films; and Christopher has a Skeleton Girl waiting for him in his bone-rich country. Creepy! McGuire, who was the recipient of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has a taste for the ghoulish.

McGuire is best known for her urban fantasy, but EVERY HEART A DOORWAY becomes something of a mixed-genre affair --- a whodunit crossed with a fairy tale crossed with a horror story  --- when three murders occur, each involving the extraction of a body part. Miss West asks Nancy, Kade, Christopher and Jack (Jill, a frilly girl with vampiric inclinations, doesn’t want to get her dress dirty) to dispose of the bodies. Macabre! But also very high school: the tension between pretty worlds and sinister ones is paralleled by the tension between conventional, popular kids who are “joiners,” and the nerds and geeks who don’t fit in anywhere. Clearly, in this book, weirdos rule. (The dedication reads: FOR THE WICKED.)

In a way, this novel can be read as a heartfelt ode to finding one’s true identity, for McGuire has a real sense of adolescent yearning and despair. To the kids at the school, “going back” has a dual meaning. It could mean returning to that other world, “to a place that understood you so well that it had reached across realities to find you, claiming you as its own and only.” But it could also mean “being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you.”

The signposts of puberty are all there: the allure and terror of sex (Nancy loves flirting with Kade and Christopher but regards herself as asexual), the conviction that your parents don’t understand you or your style preferences (Nancy’s mom and dad, in a mean trick, fill her suitcase with bright clothes instead of the Goth stuff she favors), the determination to be yourself. “[I]f you open the right door at the right time,” Nancy says, “you might finally find a place where you belong.” Or, as Jack puts it, “For us, the places we went were home…. [F]or the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be.

I’m afraid that the freedom/identity thing is hammered in to the point that it gets a bit preachy. And sometimes, I must confess, the characters seem more high school clichés --- ice queen, prom queen, science nerd, transgender misfit, etc. --- than individuals.

Yet EVERY HEART A DOORWAY is a great read, equal parts wistful, grisly and flat-out funny. McGuire is a terrific writer, and she lards her book with great thumping chunks of irony. At one point, she suggests that for children who aren’t able to go back, there is an alternate career: writing about their experiences. “Many of our graduates have found that sort of sharing to be both cathartic and lucrative. People do so love a good fantasy.” And there is a dig at the Narnia books; one boy describes them as “a Christian allegory pretending to be a fantasy series…. C.S. Lewis never went through any doors.”

There are two mysteries in the book. The first and simplest: Who committed the murders? (I’m not telling.) The second and more profound: Can the kids go back to the worlds where they belong? A few, says Eleanor, do return: “Maybe one day, the children of this world who had gone to that world to save themselves would see a door that didn’t fit right with the walls around it, something with a doorknob made of a moon, or a knocker that winked. Maybe they could still go home.”

But will they? I’m not telling that, either. I will say, however, that after the ruby slippers get Dorothy home at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she goes back in subsequent books. Eventually, she returns to Oz for good.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on April 22, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway
by Seanan McGuire

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2016
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher:
  • ISBN-10: 0765385503
  • ISBN-13: 9780765385505