Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feathers in her hair.
But the girl with the crow feathers didn’t belong to anyone.
As Neverland teeters on the brink of massive changes, as the magic slowly fades from the world and all the unexplored corners are discovered, Tiger Lily is poised on the cusp of growing up- or not. This will be the summer that deciedes, as Englanders come to Neverland’s shores, as the Lost Boys pelt through the woods, as the pirates engage their relentless hunts, as the Sky Eaters follow the rhythms of the earth and the seasons.
All children grow up, except one.
And that isn’t Peter Pan.
This book is absolutely brilliant, in so many unexpected ways, not the least of which is the narrative concept as a whole. We’re given a first-person narration with a third-person perspective, which gives us both intimacy and distance from our main characters. Our narrator is Tink (as in Tinker Bell, yes that Tinker Bell), and she looks on with the relentless fascination of an outsider. Her inability to directly communicate with the other characters keeps her from directly influencing the action. She contributes in small ways, she is a part of things, but not in the same way a speaking character would. She’s practically an insect, easy to ignore or bat away or even not notice. It’s unique- but it’s also brilliant, because Tink gives us a far better picture of Tiger Lily than Tiger Lily herself would- the same with Peter, for that matter.
Tiger Lily is a fascinating character, largely because she’s both personable and unknowable. She builds high walls around herself, she isn’t honest with herself and therefore she’s incapable of being completely honest with others, and yet she has moments where she’s intensely vulnerable, endearing, and even sweet. These moments are few and far between, but they add into an incredibly complex character bound by shifting loyalties in a time of great change, both in her setting and in her own life. Just as Tink is an outsider to the main action of the story, Tiger Lily is an outsider to every group of which she’s a part. She doesn’t belong with the other Sky Eater girls- she isn’t soft and domestically skilled like they are- but neither is she welcomed by the boys, who feel threatened by her hunting and forestry skills. Despite being thoroughly welcomed by the Lost Boys, she isn’t one of them either, and no matter how much she runs with them, she never becomes one of them. She’s always Other. Even in other, temporary, alliances, she’s always set apart. Even with her closest friends, she lacks the same qualities that mark Pine Sap and Moon Eye as similar. It isn’t that she’s unfeeling, but more that she doesn’t always know what to do with those feelings. They’re as alien to her as she is to others.
This is largely Tiger Lily’s story, but she’s not the one telling us, and I love that, love that Tink gives us an honesty of which Tiger Lily is incapable. Not that Tiger Lily would deliberately obfusticate, but rather that she can’t see things clearly enough to give us the real story.
The characters in this book are stunningly, intricately drawn, filled with equal measures savagery and grace. Peter is a wild thing, a mercurial creature of fancies and shifting moods, of vindictiveness and kindness, a childlike delight at odds with a merciless, dispassionate killer. His attitudes and whims snap through extremes, leaving everyone else scrambling to catch up, often with no rhyme or reason to the change. The Lost Boys are alternately savages following the worst of the bunch and endearing, sweet children desperate for a touch of softness and familiarity. We don’t see many of the pirates, but those we do are drawn with a surprisingly sensitive hand. Captain Hook, especially, emerges not as the ineffectual fop of Disney’s…thing, nor does he have the tightly contained barbarity hidden beneath a thin layer of ultra-civility and class with a brutal ability for emotional manipulation that we see in Dustin Hoffman and Jason Isaacs’ portrayals in Hook (1991) and Peter Pan (2003) respectively. This Hook is a broken man whose savagery and uneducated intelligence put him above the others he draws to his banner, but is ultimately burdened beneath the weight of his own failures and inadequacies. He’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. Smee, who is usally just shy of a bumbling idiot, becomes an unexpectedly (but thoroughly) creepy individual capable of giving you nightmares. Pine Sap and Moon Eye, Tiger Lily’s friends within the Sky Eaters, are soft and patient, their deep strengths hidden beneath visible frailties.
Perhaps the most surprising and most sympathetically drawn character is that of Tik Tok, the Sky Eaters shaman and Tiger Lily’s adopted father. In blunt terms, Tik Tok is either a hermaphrodite or a non-operative transexual. In more genuine terms, he was born to both genders, equal parts man and woman in a single mind, soul, and body. He wears his hair long and luxuriantly braided, loves fanciful dresses and decorations, but he’s also a wise man with a keen sensitivity to the human condition, a healer with a gentle touch and an endless patience, a father who loves his daughter beyond words or limits, someone with a boundless curiosity for the world beyond and a deep satisfaction in the world immediately around him. Tik Tok is an incredible character, standing fully on his own but also drawing a striking parallel to the infant girl he found under a tiger lily blossom and kept for his own. Tik Tok straddles genders in the same way Tiger Lily straddles loyalties. Male and Female, Sky Eater and Lost Boy, the two parts are always innate but in direct opposition. As long as those elements are in balance, Tik Tok and Tiger Lily are okay, but as soon as those elements shift, once they fracture, so too does the whole person. What happens with those slip-faults is heartbreaking.
This is a Neverland equal parts savagery and beauty, where the exquisite lives side by side with the menacing, and often hand in hand. Mermaids may be lovely but they’re deadly. Lost Boys may be sweet, but they can kill. It’s a land that’s still untamed, a tiny corner of the world that hasn’t yet been colonized, that still holds wonders, but it’s a desperate beauty with a lot of rough edges. Within all those vibrant colors are a lot of shadows, and a lot of dark things thrive there. Wendy, when she eventually comes- not by fairy dust but by an Englander missionary vessel- is a vivid spot of white in an otherwise multi-color world. She’s clean and soft in a world that’s anything but, but she has a different kind of Otherness than Tiger Lily. Where Tiger Lily is frequently in competition- both with Peter and the boys- defeating them at many of their own games, Wendy simply cheers them on and doesn’t try to play. Tiger Lily accepts her world as it is, even when it’s painful, but Wendy simply expects her surroundings to conform to her desires, because she’s never known anything different. Peter is the one who holds Tiger Lily’s heart, but Wendy is the one who breaks it.
This is a deeply sad book, where even the moments of joy are shadowed by the lingering darkness, but ultimately redemptive in how we choose to define hope. In a land where one stops growing older when they’re caught up in a Significant Event, this is a beautiful story about growing up with all its sharp edges and ugly truths. This may be a book to read slowly, but it’s definitely not one to be missed.
Until next time~