Queer Allegory and Queer Actuality in Every Heart a Doorway
“There are many ways to read a work queerly, but it is perhaps most important to note why many queer readers are so accustomed to approaching fiction with these analytical goggles on…”
University of Canberra
Alex Henderson is a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra. Their creative thesis explores the ways writers can play with familiar tropes and archetypes for the purpose of social commentary and diverse narratives, with particular focus on depictions of gender roles and the representation of LGBTQIA+ characters.
The portal fantasy subgenre and its themes of displacement, liminality, and “strange” children coming-of-age in even stranger otherworlds, has been read queerly by many readers across its history. From foundational academics like Alexander Doty to contemporary authors like A.J. Hackworth, many have noted the thematic and allegorical undercurrents in the portal fantasy that resonate with, and provide valuable escapism and catharsis to, young queer readers. Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful, metatextual approach to the portal fantasy, not only by interrogating its tropes and history but by unambiguously portraying queer characters in the genre. By giving her fantasy narrative to a cast of explicitly queer characters, McGuire acknowledges the queer resonance that has long been present in the genre and brings it to the surface of her work, creating a dual-layer of queerness in the text that interweaves magical metaphor with textual LGBTQIA+ representation. The artistic articulation and exploration of these themes of identity, acceptance, and community was important to the work of Dr Michael Noble. This paper intends to pursue this passion into the realm of literary analysis.
Fantasy; queer literary studies; queer readings; close readings; children’s literature; young adult literature
Introduction: through the portal
Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful look at the portal fantasy genre, a narrative convention of children and young people venturing through magical gateways (wardrobes, perhaps, or rabbit holes) to fantastical secondary worlds (Mendlesohn 2008; Levy and Mendlesohn 2016). As well as asking what happens upon the return from those otherworlds, McGuire’s exploration also brings queer representation unambiguously into the genre. Doorway’s fantastical narrative contains a dual-layer of queerness: within the magic of the story world are many elements and devices that contain sites of queer allegory, queer resonance, and potential for queer readings, but the central characters of the story are also textually queer themselves. McGuire thus brings the queer undercurrents of the genre that many LGBTQIA+ readers have noted—and found validation and catharsis in—explicitly to the surface. This makes Every Heart a Doorway not only an intriguing piece of queer fantasy fiction, but a text worthy of discussion within queer literary studies. The themes of identity, acceptance, and community were important to the work of Dr Michael Noble, and this paper intends to pursue this passion into the realm of literary analysis.
Every Heart a Doorway centres around Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school/therapy centre for young people who have returned from adventures in magical otherworlds and are having trouble adjusting to life back in so-called reality. Protagonist and newest arrival Nancy finds herself among other displaced, liminal youths who each underwent their coming-of-age adventure in a fantasy realm, from Gothic windswept moors, to surprisingly sinister kingdoms made from candy, to fairylands led by spider queens, among other imaginative and by turns bizarre settings. Nancy’s journey led her to a world called The Halls of the Dead, reminiscent of the Underworld of Greek myth but, according to her, much more welcoming. Her experience with the dancing souls of the departed puts Nancy in a unique position to help investigate when strange and grisly murders begin occurring around the school. The novella is part mystery, part playful exploration of the portal fantasy genre, and part queer coming-of-age story.
Doorway is the first book in a series and has been followed by five prequels and sequels that form a sort of expanded universe . Since Doorway can be read as a standalone, and because it introduces and crystallises the themes and narrative devices I am discussing most effectively, the novella will be the sole focus of this paper unless a nod to another book in the series is particularly relevant. While there are many aspects to examine in how this series plays with the conventions of the portal fantasy genre, this paper’s main focus is its textual queer representation, and how this creates a dual layer of queer allegory and queer truth that readers can find resonance in.
Queer reading and queer resonance
Put simply, “The practice of queer readings […] is about repositioning texts outside the borders of heteronormativity” (Dhaenens, Van Bauwel, and Biltereyst 2008, 335). While LGBTQIA+ representation in fiction is increasing and improving in recent years, historically there has been a dearth and heteronormativity has reigned in the realm of most popular media. However, this has never stopped queer readers from seeing themselves in the fiction they consume—it just involves more detective work and/or rebellious spirit, and a strategic way of looking at said media that is largely referred to as queer reading practice or queer reading strategies.
When Hanna Kubowitz describes queer reading practices, she “refer[s] to strategies that readers may apply to unearth queer meanings in ostensibly straight texts” (2012, 202). Sometimes these strategies are employed so readers can “read between the lines” and uncover queerness concealed in various forms of subtext and coding that have been established throughout a long history of censorship and heteronormativity (Russo 1981). Sometimes it means identifying familiar aspects and allegories in the overarching themes of a work, often tying in with the concept of “queer resonance” that will be elaborated further below. There are many ways to read a work queerly, but it is perhaps most important to note why many queer readers are so accustomed to approaching fiction with these analytical goggles on: often, and for a long period of history, queer reading has been a necessity if a queer reader wanted to find any reflection of themselves in fiction. As Kubowitz (2012) identifies, as heterosexuality is considered the “default”, so too are heterosexual readers considered the “default” audience and “implied reader” for most fiction. Quoting Sean O’Connor, Kubowitz emphasises that queer readers “are practiced at interpreting art, never taking anything at face value and locating themselves within texts that seem, superficially, to exclude them. We have had no choice but to read ourselves in[to] works” (O’Connor 1998, 8).
In Mark Lipton’s study ‘Queer Readings of Popular Culture: Seeking [to] Out the Subject’ he also noted that, somewhat by necessity, “Queer youth are imaginative and dynamic readers of popular culture” (2008, 163). Lipton interviewed a group of queer youth about their reading practices and the various ways they found queer content in texts that, on surface level, contained no queer characters. Sometimes these queer reading practices were a complex process of negotiating the relationship between reader and text, sometimes a conscious act of political rebellion, and sometimes just what readers had to do if they wanted a whisper of queerness in their media. In the words of one of Lipton’s interviewees, “it’s so rare that you can actually identify with someone who actually is a gay character that you just kind of make it up” (172).
If all this sounds like clutching at empty air, it may be pertinent to return to one of the foundational scholars in queer media interpretation, Alexander Doty, whose early work affirms that:
Queer readings aren’t ‘alternative’ readings, wishful or wilful misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along (1993, 16).
Drawing from Doty and other early queer media scholars including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and D.A. Miller, Bonnie Ruberg develops much of their definition of a queer reading around the idea of “resonance”—i.e., when a text personally resonates with the audience. In Ruberg’s words:
These moments of resonance are points of relationality, moments where the structures and messages of [fictional stories] echo and are echoed by the structures of queer thinking. To resonate does not simply mean to replicate; resonances still allow for differences and even contradiction. At the places where video games [and other media] and queerness meet one another, they reverberate, calling to one another and calling to us to make new meanings by reading them in tandem. (2019, 20)
As Ruberg elaborates, even if there is no textual queer representation (or queer intention from the text’s creators—these reading strategies can intersect with a distinctly queer and rebellious version of Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’), a text can still hold queer resonance for a reader. Do you relate to the text? Does the text speak to you and your experiences as a queer person, whether it engages with queerness directly or not? Do the themes of the text strike a chord? Are there elements of the plot or worldbuilding that you can see a queer allegory in? This sense of personal resonance can inform many queer reading strategies (and the following reclamation) of various texts and genres. For example, while there are few canonically queer superheroes in comics and film, the superhero genre is one that many queer readers find resonance in for all its dealing with secret identities and non-normative bodies (Lipton 2008; Marburger 2015; Scott and Fawaz 2018). It is a documented phenomenon that many transgender children of the 1990s felt a personal connection to K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series about shapeshifting teenagers having to keep their identities a secret (Adair 2017). And any story that stars an eclectic team of outcasts and misfits in any sort of “found family” configuration will likely find a dedicated queer audience, since we connect strongly to that sense of non-traditional family structures and community building (Halberstam 2005), all of which can be considered “distinctly queer attachments […] grounded in the terms of alternative intimacy, kinship, and belonging” (Scott and Fawaz 2018, 209).
“Somewhere over the rainbow…” Queer resonance and the portal fantasy
The portal fantasy genre is one that has been read queerly for a long time, and one that many queer readers have found that sense of resonance in. As some examples from the academic field, we return to Alexander Doty, who examined The Wizard of Oz—one of the most famous iterations of the children’s portal fantasy story—through a queer lens in his 2002 essay ‘“My Beautiful Wickedness”: The Wizard of Oz as Lesbian Fantasy’. Doty uses those aforementioned queer reading strategies to suggest this magical adventure as not just a whimsical romp through an imaginary land, but an extended metaphor for Dorothy’s exploration of her budding queer identity. He examines the idea that, in this safe dream-space free from the social norms looming over her in the real world, Dorothy is exploring her own queerness, trying to figure out how she identifies and wants to present herself. There are also more metatextual, paratextual threads, such as the fact that Oz can be found over the rainbow, and of course the “Friends of Dorothy” slang and meaning that arose around the film and its lead actress (which, while retroactively applied, speaks to the queer resonance the film had). Woven through the essay is Doty’s own story of growing up gay in America in the mid-twentieth century, and the personal affinity he felt for Dorothy that, for a long time, he could not quite put his finger on: an example of a queer reading drawn from both the idea of resonance and of the rebellious, heartfelt queer “appropriation” of texts mentioned above.
Caitlin L. Ryan and Jill Hermann-Wilmarth make a similar case for a queer reading of Where the Wild Things Are, which they note is, at its core, about a child escaping his constricting home life and finding a community where he fits in. Max sails away to a magical world full of monsters who are just as “wild” as he wants to be, “creating a queered hybrid world that draws on traditional places of home and those communities created through shared subjectivities” (2013, 154). In this fantasy space, the rowdy Max is able to explore his self-expression outside the constraints of the norms of the real world, much in the same fashion that Dorothy explores her identity within Oz in Doty’s reading.
Recently and famously, plenty of readers and analysts have also noted the queer resonance and catharsis to be found in the Harry Potter series. As Ryan and Hermann-Wilmarth also observe, “Harry Potter, after all, not only lived in a closet until adolescence, but then he realized there was a whole world he didn’t know about that he fit into better than the world into which he was born” (2013, 167). David Nylund writes of the catharsis and empowerment that this queer reading makes available to readers, noting a young therapy client of his found personal resonance—and a sense of validation—from the series, which he felt reflected his own experience not just as a child in the foster system but as a social outsider who had to “come out” as being intrinsically different to the dominant norms around him (2007, 20). While none of the main cast of Harry Potter are LGBTQIA+ within the text—and the author has become notorious for her queerphobic, and particularly her trans-exclusionary, attitudes (Evans 2020; Sinha 2020)—many readers have still found a sense of resonance in the text and endeavoured to find queer allegory peeking out from between the lines, and have drawn validation from this (Mignogna 2017).
There is queer resonance aplenty to be found in the portal fantasy genre, and many readers—particularly young ones—found a sense of home in these stories about venturing to other worlds and having adventures. In her 2019 essay ‘Through Doorways: Portal Fantasies as a Means of Queer Escape and Queer Hope’ author A.J. Hackworth reminisces that growing up queer in a stifling, dusty stretch of rural America (similar to Dorothy herself), she found an oddly personal sense of escapism and resonance in books about children fleeing the real world and travelling to fantastic realms instead. Though the escapist elements of the portal fantasy concept can appeal to all sorts of children, Hackworth notes there was a particular potential there for queer youth, who already found themselves othered in the real world, and to whom the idea of escaping to an otherworld may have been particularly appealing. Like masked superheroes, shapeshifters, and teams of lovable misfits, these stories have a wide appeal but also tend to have a more specific magnetism for queer readers. It is for this very reason that Hackworth finds Every Heart a Doorway so interesting and so special, since it acknowledges that resonant undercurrent that has long been present in queer readings of these stories and brings it to the surface:
Reading the book was a sucker punch—a heartfelt, healing sucker punch—to see someone lay it out so clearly. There are plenty of fantasy books that understand isolation, plenty of fantasy books that understand escape, even. But this was the book that stated the tender truth that all queer children and children of doorways learn (Hackworth 2019, online)
The importance of Every Heart a Doorway rests in its interweaving of resonance and representation: in McGuire’s series, “children of doorways” is not simply a metaphor for queer children, but they are in fact one and the same.
Every Heart a Doorway: playing with the portal fantasy
Every Heart a Doorway is a deeply self-aware novel, with intertextual nods to the portal fantasy genre woven throughout the story to both place it firmly within that genre but also play, tongue-in-cheek, with its conventions and popular ideas. Descriptions of Nancy’s portal world, The Halls of the Dead, reference the myth of Hades and Persephone, harking back to the otherworld journey’s mythological roots (Byrne 2016); and the story of the school therapist’s own magical adventure alludes to Christina Rosetti’s Victorian fairy tale The Goblin Market. The characters themselves make direct references to the genre they inhabit, too: in group therapy a student brings up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—listed by Farah Mendlesohn as “the classic portal fantasy” (2008, xix)—and asks why the protagonists in those books were able to return to their portal world when that often is not the case for Eleanor West’s charges. Another student retorts:
“That’s because Narnia was a Christian allegory pretending to be a fantasy series, you asshole. […] C.S. Lewis never went through any doors. He didn’t know how it worked. He wanted to tell a story, and he’d probably heard about kids like us, and he made shit up.” (McGuire 2016, 99).
As well as allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in chapter titles, main character Nancy also directly addresses the classic tale, musing that she “never thought about what it would be like for Alice when she went back to where she’d started. I figured she’d just shrug and get over it. But I can’t do that” (51). These intertextual nods serve to locate the narrative within the genre and raise an awareness of this for the reader, but they also highlight an awareness of the genre in the characters, who thus possess an awareness of the contradiction between those stories and their own situations (Baker 2018). This provides a means of interrogating tropes both metatextually and directly within the text itself, and provides a first subtle nod to the novel’s queer themes: these are adolescents for whom the media has set up a specific set of expectations, which they have discovered that their own experiences do not align with, a discovery that leaves them feeling hurt, isolated, and ostracised. This unalignment has echoes of growing up queer in a world of heteronormative media, seeking yourself in the fiction you consume yet finding nothing that reflects your experience—the very scenario that often leads to the development of those queer reading strategies discussed above. There is the sense of an acceptable norm even in whimsical tales of fantasy, which the main characters of Doorway realise they do not fit. The narrative of difference and displacement is strongest when it deals with the central characters’ relationships with the respective worlds they have lived in, most clearly demonstrated by their relationships with their families—with their biological, real-world guardians placed in antagonistic opposition to the families they found within their magical spaces.
Unpacking Nancy’s suitcase
The plot of Every Heart a Doorway begins with the arrival of new student Nancy, who has returned from The Halls of the Dead: a silent, still, colourless Underworld where she danced with the souls of the departed and, like her fellow students, felt at home in a way she does not in the apparent real world (McGuire 2016, 57). Since returning she has taken to dressing in the monochrome style that The Halls of the Dead favoured. However, when she opens her suitcase she discovers that the black and white clothes she packed for her stay at West’s school have been thrown out and replaced by a wardrobe full of colours. It becomes clear that the case has been repacked without her consent by her parents, as it also contains a letter from Nancy’s mother:
We’re sorry for playing such a mean trick on you, sweetheart, but you didn’t leave us much of a choice. […] We want our real daughter back. These clothes were your favourite before you disappeared. You used to be our little rainbow! Do you remember that?
You’ve forgotten so much.
We love you. Your father and I, we love you more than anything, and we believe you can come back to us. Please forgive us for packing you a more suitable wardrobe, and know that we only did it because we want what’s best for you. (27-28)
This scene serves to set the tone for the exploration of parent-child relationships throughout the novel, and the queer themes found therein. In the family dynamics that are discussed and described within Every Heart a Doorway—primarily Nancy’s, Jack and Jill’s, and Kade’s—there are some notable commonalities in the attitudes and behaviours of the parents towards their children. These parents are not expressed to be outright abusive or deliberately cruel, but they misunderstand their children in such a way that their attempts at “care” manifest in damaging ways. Lines like “we want our real daughter back” highlight what is to become a recurring motif: parents with specific expectations for and perceptions of their children, which, when contradicted by the actuality in front of them, lead to discomfort in the parent and efforts to return their child to “normal”. This involves, as is demonstrated with Nancy’s suitcase, a deliberate dismissal of the child’s actual desires and self-expression, under the pretence of affection (“your father and I, we love you more than anything”) and wise authority (“we only did it because we want what’s best for you”). This is a relationship and behavioural pattern that—unfortunately—many queer people, particularly queer youth, will be familiar with.
The parents in Every Heart a Doorway do not understand nor believe the change that their children have undergone—a reflection of how adults rarely believe in magic in portal fantasy adventures, but also a device that is woven through with queer themes. Rather than this parental disconnect being something queer readers can simply find Ruberg’s “resonance” in, however, the focus characters going through these experiences are all explicitly dealing with expressions of their gender and/or sexuality themselves, placing queerness directly in the narrative as well. Part of trying to get Nancy back to “normal”, for example, is her parents encouraging her to go on dates with boys (83). They make this assumption (and act on it) with two misunderstandings in play: firstly, on the fantastical level, they fail to comprehend that Nancy really did spend time in a magical Underworld, and that she had a positive experience there; and secondly, on the level that engages directly with queer narrative, they fail to comprehend that Nancy’s asexual identity makes romantic engagements much more difficult to navigate than they would be for a heterosexual teenager (which, of course, her parents presume they are raising). As Nancy herself observes, “Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken” (83). They press these social (hetero)norms onto Nancy either without realising, or while actively ignoring, the negative impact they have on her. As demonstrated with the suitcase, they are willing to go behind her back and enforce these norms without her consent rather than have an honest conversation with her, smothering Nancy’s own attempts at self-expression under a deluge of twee and patronising language that addresses her as “our little rainbow” rather than as a young adult with her own sense of identity. Nancy found much greater solace and understanding under the guardianship of the Lord and Lady of the Dead, who, despite their macabre oddness, ended up being far better companions. “I didn’t go anyplace bad” Nancy insists, upon interrogation of her morbid portal world and its denizens. “I went home” (57).
Most notably, Nancy’s story does not end—as Dorothy’s and Max’s did, even in those queer interpretations—with her growing up and returning to the real world. The doorway to The Halls of the Dead reappears at the end of the novella and Nancy takes the chance to go through it, where it is implied she will remain for the rest of her days . This serves not just as a playful subversion of the usual portal fantasy tropes, but contains an undercurrent of queer narrative play: it acknowledges that returning to the dominant norms of society might not suit everyone, and not everyone might fit into the traditional pattern of the coming-of-age story nor the happy ending. It acknowledges, too, that sometimes a biological family is not “home” and a young person would be happier and healthier leaving it behind—tying in, once again, with that running, resonantly-queer theme of alternate kinship and chosen family. Nancy has been othered in the real world, so who is to say she would not (or should not) be happier in an otherworld?
Jack and Jill and the escapism of queer Gothic
Each portal world in McGuire’s series provides a sense of welcome in a way that uniquely suits its respective adventurer, reflecting the psychological angle that coming-of-age portal fantasies can sometimes take (Lee 2016, 555–556). The doors open for the characters because the worlds within reflect their needs and desires; needs and desires which are, in the cases of the novella’s focus characters, ignored and/or repressed in the mimetic world. Jack (née Jacqueline) and Jill are two other characters corralled into constructed norms that do not suit them by parents that, while not setting out to be cruel, have a negative and emotionally abusive effect on their children. In Jack’s own words, “Our parents were… let’s go with ‘overbearing’. The sort who always wanted to put things into boxes” (McGuire 2016, 79). The twin sisters are introduced in Every Heart a Doorway and their adventure is the focus of the prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones (McGuire 2017), which traces their story back to their infancy. Their parents conceived children out of desire for social status rather than love and, upon finding out they were having twins, “both [hoped] quietly that they were about to become the proud parents of both son and daughter, completing their nuclear family on the first try. Both of them were slightly smug about the idea” (McGuire 2017, 17). Upon finding themselves with two girls, Jack and Jill’s parents proceed to raise their children in gendered modes regardless, the father raising Jill as a tomboy to superficially fulfil his desire for a status-symbol son, and the mother moulding Jac(queline) into the girly girl daughter of her dreams, the gendered roles “perfectly tailored to the children their parents wanted and not the children that they had” (44).
Once in the dark, Gothic portal world of The Moors, however, the twins are given the opportunity to break free from the gendered moulds their parents worked so hard to pour them into. Jill embraces the femininity that she was denied, living lavishly as the protégée to a vampire; and Jacqueline escapes from the femininity that was forced onto her, diving into the unladylike world of (mad) science, adopting a more masculine/butch style of dressing, going by “Jack”, and eventually starting a relationship with a girl named Alexis. The young couple are notably not faced with homophobic discrimination in The Moors. There is some concern from Alexis’ parents about Jack’s profession, and about the question of having children (to which Jack replies that she can, using her Frankenstein-esque science-magic, make as many children for Alexis as she pleases (132)), but their love is generally accepted. The fantasy world thus provides an escapist, queer-friendly space where Jack is given room to explore and embrace her sexuality, gender presentation, and identity in ways she would not have been afforded in the real world. The enticing, freeing strangeness of The Moors leans into the queerness inherent in much of the Gothic genre and its non-normative, liminal spaces and the self-discovery that can be found there (Rigby 2009, 46–49); but it also fits the broader literary tradition in which “the otherworld remains necessarily ‘other’, and so allows for a wide range of behaviours that sit uneasily in the actual world” (Byrne 2016, 38). For Jill and Jack, their fantasy world serves to let them “imagine ways of being outside the constitutive constraints of socialized gender and sexual identity” (Roberts and McCallum-Stewart 2016, 1) in its suspension of the normative rules of the real world, and of their norm-enforcing parents particularly. They find much more freedom of expression with their adoptive parental figures—vampire and mad scientist respectively—much like Nancy found freedom and validation under the guardianship of the Lord and Lady of the Dead. It is far from the image of a heteronormative nuclear family that their birth parents prioritised, but that image is also expressly something that the sisters had to escape to be their true selves.
Kade and the exclusionary politics of Fairyland
The queer and the magical also intersects with Kade, Eleanor West’s nephew and a long-term student, who discovered and embraced his transgender identity while on his fantasy adventure. Kade’s relationship with his portal world, a fairyland called Prism, stands out as being more complicated and negative than those of the other focus characters. In Prism, he found a space to explore and embrace his true self, but ultimately the world rejected him for it. As he explains to Nancy:
“I spent three years there, chasing rainbows and growing up by inches. I killed a Goblin King with his own sword, and he made me his heir with his dying breath, the Goblin Prince in Waiting. […] The King was my enemy, but he was the first adult to see me clearly in my entire life. The court of the Rainbow Princess was shocked, and they threw me down the next wishing well we passed. I woke up in a field in the middle of Nebraska, back in my ten-year-old body, wearing the dress I’d had on when I first fell into Prism.” (McGuire 2016, 38–39)
When Nancy expresses confusion, her classmate Sumi elaborates that “They [the fairies] thought they had snicker-snatched a little girl […] and when they found out they had a little boy who just looked like a little girl on the outside, uh-oh, donesies. They threw him right back” (39). Kade’s portal world presents an inverse to Jack’s, in a sense, as its utopic magical landscape adhered to transphobic conventions found in the real world. Kade is the most liminal of the travellers, as he can neither go “home” to his portal world nor “home” to his biological family, as in both spaces he is faced with misunderstanding or outright malicious attempts to squash his gender expression (131). Kade’s expulsion from Prism upon expressing his true, non-normative identity is yet another instance of fantasy within the novel that holds queer resonance and metaphorically links to real-world experience of discrimination, yet is also linked directly with queerness within the text itself. Kade is also the character who most explicitly links the coming-of-age conventions of the portal fantasy (Levy and Mendlesohn 2016) with queer narrative, expressing to Nancy that “I figured out who I was there. […] I wouldn’t be who I was if I hadn’t gone to Prism” (McGuire 2016, 70).
It is perhaps telling that Kade found affirmation not with the fair folk traditionally perceived as sweet and good, but with the supposedly ugly and strange enemy Goblin King—fitting him into the pattern alongside Nancy, Jack, and Jill, and the non-normative, spooky worlds that they felt at home in. The narrative of marginality rears its head again, and in it, its connected queerness. The school for Wayward Children is not a utopia, either, and the novel suggests that even within this community of outcasts there is a sense of an acceptable norm, highlighted most clearly with an insult hurled by fellow student Angela towards the novella’s climax: “We went to good, respectable worlds […] Moonbeams and rainbows and unicorn tears, not… not skeletons and dead people and deciding to be boys when we’re really girls!” (151). Kade’s queer identity is linked—at least in the mind of the outspokenly nasty Angela—with not only social otherness but otherworldliness. An argument could be made for Angela as an allegory for community gatekeepers who accept queerness only on certain terms, for example trans exclusionists or asexual detractors, a parallel that would align nicely with Angela’s vitriol to both Kade and Nancy. As with the microaggressions Nancy faces from her parents, what could have been left as queer theme or subtext is placed front-and-centre and explicitly linked with queer text, the magic and metaphor melding with explicit queer representation (and the transphobic character framed as antagonistic for her transphobic comments, rather than leaving this in an ambiguous state of fantasy bigotry that serves as a metaphor for real-world discrimination). Kade is set to inherit the Home for Wayward Children from Eleanor, defiantly establishing a place for himself despite being rejected by both his “homes”—fitting, again, with the resonant undercurrent of queer community-building outside of traditional norms.
Eleanor, queer mentor and keeper of magic
Eleanor West, overseer of the Home for Wayward Children, is a grown-up Wayward Child herself, who established the school to provide a safe space for youths going through similar experiences to hers. While the school is a supportive (and magical) community, it is intriguing—and unsettling—to note that from the outside, to parties unaware of the presence of magic, Eleanor West’s school could be a stand-in for conversion therapy. When meeting with parents, Eleanor offers to “cure” their “broken” children (McGuire 2016, 12), even presenting their situation as a “disorder that manifests in young girls just stepping across the border into womanhood” (12), phrasing which invites comparison to the pseudo-psychological “just a phase” logic often used to shut down explorations of queer sexuality in adolescents. Unbeknownst to the parents, however, this is a canny performance on Eleanor’s part: the prologue’s narration happily announces “She was lying, of course” after describing Eleanor’s methods, and notes that
…she sold her bill of goods with the focus and skill of a born con artist. If those guardians had ever come together to compare notes, they would have found that her script was well-practiced and honed like the weapon it was (12).
Eleanor thus performs a certain, practised set of behaviours to “pass” as ordinary, in much the same way that many LGBTQIA+ people must make a concentrated effort to “pass” for straight for their own safety. To garner the respect of these “normal” adults, she taps into preconceived notions and strict ideas about identity that these parents possess even if they are entirely socially constructed; she meets and blends in with the normative adults “dressed in respectable grays and lilacs, with her hair styled just so, like the kind of stolid elderly aunt who only really existed in children’s stories” (11). Once in the presence of her students, Eleanor drops this façade entirely: when Nancy first meets her, Eleanor has abandoned her “respectable grays and lilacs” for an eclectic mix of clashing colours and patterns, and speaks openly about magic and doorways.
Eleanor provides a sense of validation and acts as a savvy mentor figure, adept at navigating the cruelty of the world that perceives her and people like her as irrevocably different. Eleanor’s sexuality is not addressed in the narrative, but she makes for a clear metatextual stand-in for the queer role model, an adult mentor offering community and guidance to a younger generation, offering a safe space away from the stifling, normative concerns of their biological families. This queer protectiveness becomes text rather than subtext most clearly when it comes to Eleanor’s nephew Kade: she scolds Jill (and later Angela) for misgendering him, asserting that “we respect people’s personal identities here” (41), and affirms his gender (and, at the same time, condemns his parents’ rejection of him) with statements like “You’re a good boy, Kade. Your parents don’t know what they’re missing” (146). She has also offered Kade a permanent home after his transphobic expulsion from both Prism and his family house, a form of community adoption common among queer circles. Her goal for the Home for Wayward Children is to offer “the company of someone who understood, and the company of their peers, which was a treasure beyond reckoning. Eleanor West spent her days giving them what she had never had” (13), a statement that, once again, works on a dual-level: it is a sentiment addressing magic but resonant with the idea of queer sanctuary, as well as being directly involved with queerness.
Conclusion: closing the doorway
Every Heart a Doorway is the story of a liminal space populated by liminal figures. Nancy, Jack, and Kade are all caught between worlds: they feel like outsiders in the “ordinary” world that has tried to erase their true selves, and long to return to their magical homes. This is a narrative element that provides a natural site for queer resonance, something for queer readers to relate to, and perhaps find validation in those echoes. However, these characters are also all canonically queer within the text: they are literally othered by society, as well as being otherworldly travellers. With these personal narratives at its core, Every Heart a Doorway contains and exemplifies a dual layer of queer resonance and queer text that brings the queer potential that has always existed in the portal fantasy genre to the surface.
Dr Noble’s work involved artistic articulation of politics, with queer identity and acceptance at the heart of the work. Every Heart a Doorway is a poignant and playful narrative that also has these themes at its core: it takes a genre and premise that people have been reading queerly for a long time and brings that queerness explicitly into the text. There are in effect two levels of queerness at play in this book: the first is the metaphorical, thematic level, which creates an effective and pointed allegory for the experience of difference and displacement that queer youth are likely to feel in the world, the kind of emotional undercurrent that prompted that feeling of resonance in Hackworth and other readers like her. The second level is the explicit engagement with queer identity in the text: majority of the novel’s main characters fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella and discuss their identities openly in the story. Thus, the queer themes McGuire explores in the book—the feelings of displacement, the hard-to-pin-down yearning, the association with the “other”, and the sense of community found with other children with similar experiences and perspectives—are all tied explicitly to queer experience rather than remaining open and nebulous. Every Heart a Doorway is a valuable and validating addition to the field of queer literature, and particularly queer fantasy; and I hope that it will open the door to further explorations of the intersections of queerness and magic that have always existed in the hearts of queer readers.
- Including Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017), Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018), In an Absent Dream (2019), Come Tumbling Down (2020), and the forthcoming Across the Green Grass Fields. Each novel tends to shift its focus to different characters and explore different facets of the portal fantasy concept as the series has built it, some progressing forwards in the timeline (Sugar Sky, Tumbling Down) and some serving as character-study prequels (Sticks and Bones, Absent Dream).
- This adventure is expanded upon in the fourth novella in the series, In An Absent Dream, the title of which also comes from a line in Rosetti’s poem.
- This is confirmed in the sequel Beneath the Sugar Sky, where Nancy makes a cameo appearance as a guide to a group of fellow Wayward Children. She seems to have settled happily back in, and is shown to be in a supportive, pseudo-adoptive parent-child relationship with the Lord and Lady of the Dead.
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