At the start of last year, Minneapolis novelist Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal, the highest honor in young adult literature, for her fourth novel, “The Girl Who Drank the Moon.”

Kelly Barnhill's 2016 young adult novel “The Girl Who Drank the Moon."
Kelly Barnhill’s 2016 young adult novel “The Girl Who Drank the Moon.”

In the book, a witch, a swamp monster and a tiny dragon adopt a magical girl abandoned by a depressed village as part of the citizenry’s misbegotten scheme to appease the witch, whom they believe to be evil. The girl’s magic gets out of hand, despite the witch’s efforts to train her and keep a lid on things. But she’s no evil witch. The evil, it turns out, is in the village—among its craven, hard-hearted leaders and in a miserable tower. The book is a heart-felt tale about the bad compromises people make to get by, about the people who take advantage of them, about transformations, about the power of friendship and love.

“I wanted to wrestle with the notion of false narratives and how those in power can manipulate story, can manipulate narrative for their own ends,” Barnhill told me when she was in town recently to speak at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. “Fascism is basically storytelling. It’s a narrative that alters people’s sense of the world. All terrible, terrible human endeavors are based in stories. … It’s something we need to think about critically.”

Barnhill’s young adult stories are often a kind of fairy tales—and evil rulers make frequent appearances. Her 2011 novel “The Mostly True Story of Jack” is about a boy and the richest, most powerful man in town, who is out to get him. Because the man is trying to sustain evil magic than has so benefited his family through the generations. In Barnhill’s 2014 book “The Witch’s Boy,” one of the villains is a king seeking to build an empire at the points of swords.

When “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” arrived in August 2016, many saw in it echoes of Donald Trump and his campaign for president. Barnhill’s take: “I do think that all our art at some point or another is prescient and the human mind can imagine all kinds of stuff. I’m not the only one who’s written about the terrible evils and pains of despotism and where that leads us.”

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Kelly Barnhill's 2018 book “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories."
Kelly Barnhill’s 2018 book “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories.”

Barnhill was visiting Boston to promote her new book, one for grownups, called “Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories,” a collection of nine tales dating as far back as 2007. One of the earliest stories is “Elegy to Gabrielle—Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves,” a story about a magical healer and her daughter who grows up to be a righteous pirate queen before the authorities catch up with her.

The newest story is “The Unlicensed Magician” from a couple years ago. It’s about an invisible, magical girl and her alcoholic father living a nation that has fallen under the control of a fascist dictator. The strongman extends his life by kidnapping magical babies and draining them of their powers. Barnhill writes: “So many things,” the Minster mused, “can be accomplished with guns. How many more things might be accomplished with magic?”

The book also features a World War II ghost story, the adventures of a widow spotted cavorting with a sasquatch, a tale about a taxidermist who becomes mayor of an economically dying town, and an account of an insect-man who abandons his university teaching position to find an astronomer he’s dreamed about.

And, of course, there are the four vignettes of the title story, “Dreadful Young Ladies.”

“They were playing around with this notion of me being dreadful as a child. Because I was dreadful. I was moody, I was insubordinate,” Barnhill says. “So I wanted to put these characters together who were as dreadful as dreadful could be.”

In the stories, one woman “loses” children, another is an erotic vampire, the third eats the inspector sent to investigate irregularities, the fourth is a young girl who flies away with the son of the man carrying on an affair with her mom.

“There is a lot of pressure, I think, on girls specifically,” Barnhill says. “This fear of disappointing. This fear of being labeled as dreadful when you behaved in a way” that didn’t meet expectations. “That was a huge fear of mine growing up.”

Kelly Barnhill. (Bruce Silcox)
Kelly Barnhill. (Bruce Silcox)

Barnhill was born in Minneapolis and grew up around there, the oldest of five kids, with dozens of cousins often also orbiting around.

“I grew up as a girl in America,” Barnhill says. “I grew up in a Catholic family, in a very large Catholic family. I grew up in a school with a lot of bullying, but nobody really acknowledge that there was a lot of bullying.”

She attended college in St. Paul, then spent her 20s “in that post-college ennui,” she says. She moved to Florida and Virginia. She and her husband became park rangers deep inside Olympic National Park in Washington state, at a lake and alpine meadow up above the tree line. (An inspiration for the witch’s house in “The Girl Who Drank the Moon.”) Then she studied to be an English teacher in grad school at Portland State University in Oregon before returning to her native Minnesota to give birth to her first child.

“I had really stopped writing in my 20s, after college, and I had thought maybe I was done with writing,” Barnhill says. “It was really after my third child was born that I returned to writing.”

She was 30 years old then. The baby was colicky, so he often napped on her belly and she read. She found her way to Louise Erdich’s book “Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.”

“I read it four times in succession, again and again, obsessive,” Barnhill recalls. “After reading it four times, I woke up the next morning and I wrote a story about a young woman who turns into a fish.”

Kelly Barnhill's 2014 young adult novel “The Witch’s Boy."
Kelly Barnhill’s 2014 young adult novel “The Witch’s Boy.”

As for the stories collected in “Dreadful Young Ladies,” Barnhill says, “The thread is gaze. All the characters are chasing under the limitations of gaze. It’s male gaze. It’s the community gaze. It’s the parental gaze.” In “The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story,” “it’s the gaze of the lover to the beloved.”

Often it’s a gaze of disapproval.

“I think there is something universal in how we see and how we are seen. And how we empower ourselves to take the reins of our own identity and make it something that belongs to us,” Barnhill says.

“Do we stay within?” she asks. “Or do we sidestep? There are consequences to that action as well.”

The book’s final story, “The Unlicensed Magician,” which comes in at just over 100 pages, is about a whole society struggling to get by under the restrictions of a dictatorship—from everyday compromises to the small personal rebellions. “It is strange to read it now in the face of these strange times we’re living in, grasping men in power, those willing to drain whatever resources for their own personal gain,” Barnhill says. “That’s the world we live in and it’s terrible. I think we make art to come face to face with terrible things and to think about how we move past it.”

“We know so much of our modern life was originally dreamed up in science fiction stories,” Barnhill says. Cell phones, moon landings, super computers. “We are living these speculative imaginings of our great-grandparents. … It really does remind us that the speculative imagination is powerful.”

In our stories, “we’re also tracking a course for where we’re going,” Barnhill says. “It is through art that we track a course to the future. It is through art that we rewrite the world.”

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Categories: Books