Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise is in conversation with Peter Pan, a story so familiar and entrenched in general English-speaking cultural consciousness that I’m counting it as fitting the fairy tale theme. Peter Pan is easily read as extremely creepy, and Wise runs with that as she explores Wendy’s experiences after returning from Neverland, and on her return. The book is speculative fiction on the dark side, with social commentary; it could also be classified as psychological horror.
This post contains spoilers for the book.
The events of Wendy’s past are interspersed with the 1930s, when adult married Wendy, mother of a daughter named Jane, once again encounters Peter Pan–and he takes her daughter with breathlessly terrifying casualness. Then the story flashes back to the years after Wendy’s initial return from Neverland: Wendy still remembers their adventures, and talks about them, but her brothers have forgotten, perhaps willfully. In 1917, after younger brother Michael returns wounded and shell-shocked from World War One, tensions among them reach a breaking point. Elder brother John, safe from war because of his poor eyesight but feeling grimly responsible for their family, commits Wendy to an insane asylum.
Wendy’s flashback experiences in the asylum reminded me of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the way her lived experience is willfully suppressed, ignored, and punished for non-conformity to expected gender roles. However, she does make a friend of another inmate, Mary White Dog, showing the strength that comes from women working together against oppression; when an arranged marriage provides a way out for Wendy, she fetches Mary and employs her in the household. Their close relationship gives strength to both and is important to Jane’s rescue. In the 1930s, the only way to rescue Jane is to go in after her. Meanwhile in Neverland, Jane’s point of view gives a sometimes chilling outsider perspective on Peter, his abusive behavior, and his world’s magical rules. Jane, Wendy, and Mary survive, but once back in our world, have to decide how to move on with their lives.
Though for me this book was a rough ride, it was splendidly executed, and I recommend it particularly if you love retellings or transformative works of any kind.