Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories
by Kelly Barnhill
Algonquin Books, 2018; 304 pp
Reviewed by Britny Brooks
“I dream of words on a page transforming to birds, and birds transforming to children, and children transforming to stars.” (120)
Kelly Barnhill welcomes us to a world of magic, love, lush darkness, and consequence in Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a witchy collection of eight speculative fiction short stories and one novella. In general, collections can sometimes be a mixed bag—ranging from the not-my-cup-of-tea, to the so-so story to the captivating favorites—but Barnhill manages to balance each of the the stories with each other with her lyrical prose, imaginative worlds, and varying structural styles. With the current call and drive for more female-focused and female-empowered stories, a title like Dreadful Young Ladies is sure to snag even the readers who might not have known Barnhill for her New Times Bestselling and Newbery Medal winning novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon, however, you might be surprised to find that most of these interesting and uncanny characters are neither especially young nor particularly dreadful.
Honestly, that isn’t a bad thing either. Of course, you have the women from the titular story “Dreadful Young Ladies” and also “Notes of the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake” who are indeed dangerous, powerful, and wonderfully unrestrained from doing and thinking what they want, but most of these characters in this collection are deemed “dreadful” because that is what society and the other characters believe them to be. One of my favorite ladies, and examples of this, is Mrs. Sorensen from the collection’s opening story, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch.” Mrs. Sorensen is kind, gentle, and has completely transformed the cheesy Disney princess power of communicating with animals into something that is truly enchanting, empowering, and most importantly believable. Mrs. Sorensen physically embodies nature, and is often described as having “a smell about her—crushed herbs and apple cider and pine sap and grass” and that her silence was “Like the silence of a pine forest on a windless summer” (13), and while that unknowable, untamable quality about her is one of the reasons that she is considered an outsider and a dreadful example of a proper woman, the others are because she is has taken the animals that she has helped and saved in as her children and because she is in love with a sasquatch. Not because she did anything wrong or is evil, but because she is just different. Many of the other women in this collection are seen in a similar light, and are considered dangerous and dreadful because they are powerful or willful or are seen as something other than the traditional feminine.
However, the strongest theme in this collection surprisingly isn’t really dreadful ladies, but love and the power and consequences of it. From rediscovered love to a mother’s love, discarded love to unconditional love and the love of yourself, each of these stories looks at how love can be both the most beautiful and destructive magic that one can possibly have. This collection explores how love is a motivation, catalyst, burden, and even fuel for hatred because we learn you have to care or be passionate enough about something to hate it.And maybe what is really dreadful about these characters is their reflective power, so that you are forced to take a good look at yourself and see the things you love—both the good and bad—and acknowledge them. I can’t imagine a more powerful and terrifying magic than that.