Simon and Schuster. 2004.
Ages 12 and Up.
When I picked up Karen Wallace's young adult novel Wendy I really wasn't expecting much. I thought, well, I thought a lot of stupid things about young girls at the turn of the 20th century and how dull their lives would be. Wendy is thought to be around ten or eleven years old when she meets Peter Pan, so it is natural to think that not much could have happened to her before she left for Never Land. That was the highlight of her life, the most significant moment in her otherwise privileged existence. (The children were from a rich family after all, how much suffering could they have done?) Well, Karen Wallace read a lot more into the few scenes at the Darling house in Peter Pan, and she ran with her initial impressions. The end result is an outstanding companion to the original book and one of the flat out best young adult novels I have read in a very long time.
Okay, no more hyperbole. The thing about Wendy is that it is a period novel, and that is not an easy thing to make fascinating when you are writing for children. All too often authors get bogged down in the details of the period and forget to give the basic clues about characterization. You end up knowing more than you ever wanted to know about chandeliers and pantry contents but have no idea what everyone is thinking. I was ready for that kind of book and since Wendy opens with a kitchen scene, I seemed to be right on track. But then the plot flies forward in directions I never expected and Wallace had me in the palm of her hand before I knew it. We never even made it to the pantry.
Wendy Darling does not have an easy life. Her nanny gives Joan Crawford a run for her money and her father is walking on the wrong side of the appropriate behavior line with the neighbors. Her mother is distant and all too often oblivious and there is a particularly horrid little girl that she has to play with because their forced friendship is deemed "appropriate." There are a lot of reasons for Wendy to dread getting out of bed each morning and she immediately captures the reader's sympathy and interest. This is not a child to pity for she refuses to pity herself. Wendy is a person to be reckoned with, and it is only a matter of time before she makes everyone else realize just how powerful of a personality she is.
There are mysteries about social behavior in Wendy and questions of both personal and historical nature. Wallace asks her readers to consider just how men and women choose their partners and just what are the responsibilities of marriage. She also delves into what makes a healthy child and all manner of parenting questions. There is even a foray into the issue of votes for women, which keeps the book grounded in a real historical context. More than anything else though there is Wendy and her struggle to both understand and save her parents. What makes the book all that more impressive is her determination not to lose herself in the rush to rescue everyone else. She is Wendy Darling and that singular person is of importance, regardless of where everyone else's attention might lie. Wendy never forgets this, and in making her case so strongly, Wallace reminds us just why the Darling's window was the one that drew Peter Pan.
I do have to urge a bit of caution here, Wendy has a very critical subplot surrounding the issue of parental infidelity. While the descriptions are not graphic, the theme is certainly mature. The book is listed as 12 and up and it certainly is teen appropriate. I leave it to parents to decide at just how early in the teen years it should be presented.
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