Here are my credentials: I have a Reader’s Degree in Fantasy, Major in Fairytale Retellings, Minor in The Twelve Dancing Princesses.
I’m always enamored by the ensemble of twelve girls – sometimes with themed names, always with twelve distinct personalities – coming together and carrying off a splendid tale as a team. I adored Heather Dixon’s Entwined and Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball; I’ve watched the Barbie movie dozens of times, and I’ve got Palace of Lies and Speak Easy on my to-be-read pile. The Twelve Dancing Princesses anything brings me to my feet. So it’s a personal fairytale for me to nerd out with you about Jessie Burton’s modern, feminist take on the story, The Restless Girls.
A small reminder before we descend the enchanted staircase: The Restless Girls is a children’s book that clocks in at 145 pages. Hold the heavy criticism at the door – yes, there wasn’t enough time to explore each princess and other side characters individually, aspects of the twist at the end seem a little unrealistic, and royal protocol is all but ignored. If you’re looking for a cotillion of plot twists and turns, a proper novel might be more your partner. But if you’re game to step lightly in a lively, feel-good reel, let’s dance right in.
On Frida and her sisters
Our story begins after the girls have just lost their mother, Queen Laurelia, to a motorcar accident. Their father, King Alberto, is 50% paranoid that he might lose his daughters to their worldly pursuits too and 50% actually has no idea what to do with his daughters. He locks them away and bans them from things like their music lessons and trips outside the castle and, oh, inheriting the kingdom. Trapped in grief and loneliness, the twelve princesses discover a magical underground palace where they are free to dance every night – and where they find the courage to fight for their right to rule as princesses and to live as free women.
Central to the story is Princess Frida, described by King Alberto as: “You’re slyer than a fox. You’re the eldest. You’re the ringleader.” (She’s also a pilot.) Frida is a typical fairytale hero: compassionate, clever, and capable. In contrast to the king’s passive advisors she is passionate and outspoken; in contrast to her father’s blustering temper, hers is diplomatic and calm. I do say ‘typical fairytale hero’ because I find her much too similar to other protagonists like her – Renee Ahdieh’s Shahrzad comes to mind – but that’s not a bad thing. Admirable girls are a dime a dozen in fiction as well as real life.
As for the eleven other girls, beyond their introductions and resolutions, some sisters weren’t given much part to play. Which did leave me miffed, as it’s different from how I usually enjoy this story. But also different – there were some chapters where the focal character of Frida took a backseat from the main story and the younger girls had to fend for themselves. Superbly, their sisterhood didn’t crumble when removed from the main character; rather it evolved into a dynamic that had a cleverness and style all their own.
By simply existing, our girls turn the patriarchal kingdom of Kalia on its head. A country traditionally run by a king and an all-male council, no one has any clue what to do with twelve female heirs.
And yet, despite being denied their birthright of being allowed to succeed the throne, never do the princesses compete with the men for power for power’s sake. Not with the council (who represent people we know in real life who recognize injustice but are reluctant to overthrow the status quo) and not even with their father (who represents men who aren’t necessarily malicious in their inferior view of women, just stubbornly mired in old ways of thinking).
The stand the princesses make is for the right to walk the land and follow their passions in peace. If they ever raised a fuss about taking the throne, it wasn’t out of greed for control, but out of their royal obligation to serve the realm. It’s a subtle expression of the concept that feminism has never been about women stealing power away from men, but rather about women having the right to live as they please – and to have a fair shot at jobs they’re certainly qualified for.
“You are the law,” Frida tells her father, implying that he could change Kalia’s patriarchal notions and laws if he only made up his mind to stop accepting them. (And that’s how basic the concept of feminism is, really – a decision to reject beliefs that devalue others. A king, common person, or child reading a fairytale could grasp it.)
The story is driven forward by the masculine-energy devices of Queen Laurelia’s motorcar and Frida’s aeroplane, used as metaphors for freedom. “It wasn’t the car itself so much as what it had given her: a sense of movement, of direction,” Frida realizes of her mother’s interest. In a country where girls were kept as immobile and stagnant as flowers, the car and plane were vehicles for the idea that not only can girls make things run as well as boys, but they can be just as fast and fearless and free when they do it.
Meanwhile, the secret palace where the dancing takes place was also merely used as a device, instead of becoming the main setting. The palace became a place for the girls to heal; the dancing became a way for them to regain their identities. Many The Twelve Dancing Princesses stories focus on the princesses trying to escape dark magic keeping them tied to the underground realm where they dance. Yet, in The Restless Girls, the true struggle for freedom takes place in the real world. It tells us that we are free to be ourselves in our comfort zones, but true freedom is earned when we assert our authentic selves in the spaces where we are told we cannot be who we are.
The Restless Girls is a story of freedom for girls and boys of all ages and races (have I mentioned Angela Barrett illustrated our princesses with lovely coffee-brown skin and beautiful, big and braided, naturally curly hair?). The right to a life without walls is universal, and the way that leads to it is always a path that is wise to pursue.
Originally posted on the Fully Booked blog on September 19, 2018. See me and fellow First Look Club member (and magical friend!) Katya weigh in on The Restless Girls here!