I picked up Strands of Starlight by Gael Baudino almost entirely because of the cover art -- the rest of the motivation I needed involved the description including the Inquisition and Elves. I've never been shy about my feelings in regard to the usual wisdom that one shouldn't "judge a book by its cover" -- that wisdom applies better to people than to books. Cover art is no less art and their visual design and appeal are important. Thomas Canty's work brought me to a lot of good fiction - particularly the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collections put together by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling. The more important part here was that I picked it up at all, and that I was a teenager.
It's no big secret that I was sexually abused as a child. In spite of that -- or perhaps because of it -- I found my peace in school and learning, in roleplaying games and speculative fiction of all sorts (fantasy, science fiction, horror). I had more adult friends than peers my own age. Though I was assigned a therapist by the state, I didn't find him helpful. What 16 year old would?
It's been nearly 20 years since I was an angry teenager in a therapist's office, arguing with him over what he thought he knew about me and what I knew about myself. I still think he was wrong; I didn't blame myself and didn't need to move through the step of admitting that I blamed myself so that I could realize it wasn't my fault. I already knew that, I already knew people could be "sick in the head" since my father was an alcoholic and abused my mother. I wasn't burdened with guilt from thinking I had caused my own abused and maybe that's really what saved me.
Still, as I've gotten older, as I've learned to reflect more on my experience of being human and what I've learned about the human experience through stories, I sometimes have epiphanous moments where I better understand myself and the things I've loved.
I have loved Strands of Starlight from the moment I started reading it. I have loved it for more than 20 years, though I never could quite put my finger on why, beyond the facts that:
1) the cover was beautiful
2) Baudino's storytelling voice flowed well for me
3) it mixed real world bits with high fantasy bits -- I hadn't experienced magical realism yet, though I feel a strong connection to the stories that seed our reality with magical possibility.
I heard three words today: Redemption through Transformation. And I suddenly knew what I'd been trying to figure out for so long, what I'd been so close to figuring out on more than one occasion when I found myself looking at this book -- holding a copy I'd found in a used bookstore in my hands, or dusting off my second copy (I lost the first), or preparing to send a friend a copy because it was like giving them a piece of my soul even if they didn't know it.
As part of the story, Miriam, the protagonist -- like so many protagonists -- can only achieve redemption (and revenge) through transformation, and it occurs on a very literal, physical level for her. As a teenager, I was essentially powerless. As an adult, it isn't a whole lot better. But I needed to believe in the possibility of setting things right, of gaining some modicum of control over things happening to me in my life.
As a teenager, I lost control of a lot of things, including my body. When I manifested Hashimoto's and my thyroid ceased regular function, I put on a lot of weight in a very short amount of time. This loss of bodily control was just as hurtful to me as my abuse, maybe more so since there wasn't someone doing this to me... my body was doing it to itself.
I saw this in Miriam, too. I related strongly, even if I didn't realize it, to the figure of a girl who had done nothing wrong but was treated by a dominant system as though she were guilty of some crime. For Miriam, it was her power of healing which didn't fit the church's paradigm. For me, it was being asked what I did to provoke my abuser - a man of nearly 40, when I was 6. It was being accused of lying and stealing by a foster mother who was more accustomed to younger children. It was having my escapes taken away from me by a religion-sponsored children's home. And Miriam did the thing I wanted to do -- she escaped to a world where people valued her and didn't care about her past. And she changed. She took power for herself. Without spoiling the story -- because of course I hope you'll read it -- she did the things I wanted, needed to do, even if I hadn't consciously realized it.
Maybe this is also why I like "unlikeable" characters, like Miriam or Meche. But that's a whole other can of worms...
It seems silly and oversimplified, put like this. Stark black letters on the white (digital) page. But it's powerful and it was a story I needed as a teenager, and to an extent still need today. We all need stories like that; stories that tell us that we are not defeated, that someone like us can, has, will find a way through the pain and suffering and will find beautiful things.
Is it always happy endings and rainbows? No. I would argue it isn't even often happy endings and rainbows, but that's not what hope is for or about.