On TJ Klune’s THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA, and the right to write

Let’s start with the review, which isn’t the point: TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is delightful. It’s a fantasy fable about tradition and love and acceptance and childhood and parenting and fear and found family and taking risks when change is scary, and I described it on Twitter yesterday as the book that Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie’s love child would write, if that love child chose to write a book about the love child of Arthur Dent and Bilbo Baggins. I wrote that after reading half of the book, and having finished it I stick by it. Delightful is practically the entire review. It’s not a word I use often, but it is very nearly the perfect word for this book.

(It is also kind of predictable, which is part of why I chose the word “fable” to describe it; by about the 1/3 point in this book you will know exactly where it going and what the major story beats are going to be, and you will be exactly right, and you won’t care when you’re done reading that you were right, because, again: delightful.)

Before I say another word, I want to make something very clear: there are lots and lots of books in the world, and every day the number of books that are in the world increases, and no one anywhere is able to read them all, even if they wanted to try to. I stand one hundred percent behind anyone who decides not to read a book. You can not read a book for any reason you like. It’s absolutely fine. There is no wrong reason to choose not to read a book. I want that clear. No one owes any writer or any book their attention, their time, or their money, period.

This Goodreads review was brought to my attention last night:

There’s more, but I think the first few paragraphs are a reasonable paraphrase, and obviously feel free to click through on the link up there and read through the whole thing, which also includes links to the original article (which is, ironically, what brought the book to my attention in the first place, quite some time ago) that Kas takes issue with, and the podcast, which I have not listened to.

I would like to draw your attention to that first sentence: “I read it, I loved it, the writing was great and everything.” It is only after finding out what the original germ of the story was that Kas turned on the book, accusing Klune of profiting off of the pain of indigenous people and writing a book that tells a story he has no right to tell. And it’s likely more galling than usual to run into this story now, when the horrors of Canada’s residential schools are much more in the news than they usually are.

I am, in general, sympathetic to both of these arguments. I do think that there are stories that white men should, at the very least, think deeply and carefully about before trying to tell, and frankly probably shouldn’t tell at all. A good recent example is Lovecraft Country, which is practically the Platonic ideal of this idea: a book where a white author tries to tell a story about the Black experience in America, with Lovecraftian horror wrapped around it, and where he not only did a bad job but his story got made into an HBO special. So we not only have a white man telling a story that he isn’t equipped to tell, because white men aren’t a useful source for stories about the Black experience in America, but his story sucked up tons of promotional dollars and Hollywood attention when there are similar (better) stories by Black authors out there that are getting ignored.

This, at least in my opinion, is not that.

I just went back and reread the Scalzi interview again, and the really fascinating thing about it is that Klune isn’t even describing the premise of his own book correctly. Because the key difference between Klune’s orphanages, run by DICOMY, the Department In Charge of Magical Youth, is that it’s not a residential school. It’s an orphanage. And the story is not told through the eyes of the children; it’s told through the eyes of Linus Baker, a caseworker for DICOMY. The story’s really not about the pain of the stolen children, first because it isn’t, and second because they aren’t stolen children. The book is four hundred pages long and not one sentence is dedicated to any of these kids missing their parents, or wanting to return home. The magical kids in this book are actually orphans. In one case, they literally don’t know the species of the child, much less who their parents might be, and in another, they know the child’s father but that father is … (dances around spoilers) … uninterested in raising his child. Linus’ focus throughout the book is literally to make sure the children are safe as he inspects these schools. Like, that’s not a euphemism, and he’s not some sort of Oliver Twist headmaster or uncaring bureaucrat, and he’s not saying “safe” but secretly he means “imprisoned.” He legitimately wants them to be safe. He has some ideas about these kids’ lives that he’s disabused of over the course of the story, but he’s never for a second portrayed as an uncaring or unfeeling person, and — and this is a critical difference from the stolen children who were placed in the residential schools — there is no emphasis at all from anyone on making these kids “normal” or denying what they are, when the entire point of residential schools was literally genocide.

One thing that Kas goes to over and over again, including in the numerous comments that follow the review, is how would you feel if someone did this about the Holocaust? And here’s the thing: Klune has, by his own admission, used something horrible as an inspiration to write a story that is mostly about love and hope, and in the process he has created something that is far enough away from its original inspiration that I, at least, have a lot of trouble holding it against the story. And the simple fact is there have been stories explicitly written about the Holocaust that were supposed to be heartwarming; witness Life is Beautiful or the more recent Jojo Rabbit, which, for the record, I haven’t seen. This book isn’t explicitly about residential schools. It has, in fact, gone so far afield from being about residential schools that Kes didn’t catch it, and loved the book on first read. So, yeah, I think I can honestly say that if someone writes a fantasy novel that is so loosely inspired by the Holocaust that I don’t notice it, I’m probably going to be okay with that.

And, now that I think about it, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, another series that I absolutely loved for very different reasons, might be a relevant point of comparison, too.

(I’m going to pause here to point out that it’s interesting that Seanan McGuire provided the “very close to perfect” quote on the front of the hardback; McGuire has an entire series about magical children in a boarding school, and Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is considerably darker than Klune’s Marsyas Island Orphanage ever is. Honestly, I prefer the blurb on the paperback version, where V.E. Schwab describes the book as “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.”)

But to return to Klune: he has allowed a terrible thing to be the inspiration for a beautiful thing. He has justified and described that inspiration in ways that are, charitably, clumsy. But the thing is, if he hadn’t made those comments, I genuinely don’t think anyone would be reading this book and claiming that it was glorifying residential schools. I just don’t think there’s enough there to justify that argument. Your mileage may vary, and again: if you choose not to read this book, I fully stand behind that decision even if I disagree with it. I am not here to tell anyone how to feel; this piece was written more to sort out my own thinking on the matter than to convince anyone else, particularly people of color. But I loved this book, and I think it will stick with me for a long time.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.