Oh how my heart hurt for the Prine sisters, 7th grader Eleanor and her younger sister Mike! Growing up with an abusive father, Simon, and a mother, Moira, who would prefer to blame them rather than defend them, the girls resort to telling each other stories about magic in order to explain the horrifying circumstances in which they live. On one particularly bad evening, when their developer father breaks a witch ball heirloom they’d inherited from their mother’s Scandinavian forebears, a portal opens up beneath Eleanor’s bed that whisks the girls to Riverland, an odd place that shares a name with the coastal Baltimore development they live in (and, it’s implied, that Simon helped build from land Moira inherited.)
Portal Riverland is a scary place inhabited by birds who tend to the budding dreams and nightmares that grow in the reeds along the banks of the river that dominates the landscape. Things aren’t going so well in Portal Riverland tho, as the nightmares, under the guidance of the monstrous Anassa, are trying to break through the cracks in the tunnels that form the border between Portal Riverland and reality. Eleanor and Mike just want to go home, especially after they’re told that staying past daybreak will trap them there forever. But the girls keep coming back for one reason or another, even as the reality of their abusive family life threatens to escape the confines of their home.
This depiction of abused children feels so achingly honest and personal, as if Fran Wilde is exposing her own wounds (which, it is implied, she is.) Eleanor and Mike are easy to root for, even as their upbringing makes them occasionally awful. Is anyone surprised when they’re casually violent with one another, given what they’ve been shown is acceptable behavior through what their father does to them and their mother? Ms Wilde’s exploration of complicity and blame is haunting, so much so that I wanted to reach out to the two Prine girls and assure them that none of this is their fault. It made my heart hurt as a mom to see parents fail their children as completely as the Prine parents do here.
That said, this book is unfortunately less successful as a fantasy novel. Portal Riverland is meant to be an extended metaphor for what the girls are going through but often feels sloppy and disconnected, which is fine for a personal fable but not so great for mass publication. Also, almost everyone outside of the Prine family is barely more than a stick figure — Aja and Kalliope get particularly short shrift, at odds with the author’s note at the beginning that hopes we will love them — and Pendra, who is probably given the most depth otherwise, is eye-gougingly annoying. Maybe it’s because I was a pretty empathetic, private kid myself whose circle of friends was generally sensitive to each other’s feelings, but her oblivious insistence on having things her way even when it obviously hurt her friend’s feelings made me pretty mad.
I also wish that there had been more of an emphasis on Eleanor learning how to manage her feelings in a healthy way beyond the two sentences James said to her about her anger. Given that Ms Wilde wants this book to be available to any kids going through a similar situation in hopes that it will spur them to get help by telling the truth, I felt that it might have been even more helpful in overtly assuring them that they’re not bad kids simply by virtue of being abused, and that their conditioning is not irreversible. I guess that’s a lot to ask for from any one book, but I would honestly rather have read about that than the half-baked fantasy world the girls find themselves in.