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Long after Wendy, John, and Michael arrived home to London from their childhood adventure to Neverland, the ever-youthful Peter returns to lay claim to Wendy’s daughter, Jane. This familiar end to Barrie’s Peter Pan is only the beginning for Wise’s Wendy, Darling. Told from both the perspectives of Wendy and Jane, readers are flown back to Neverland, a place far more sinister than Wendy ever truly understood, and filled with a gaping hole of nostalgia and longing.
This upheaval to Wendy’s life is tortuous, for she has spent years attempting to release the hold Neverland had on her. She had grown older, no longer the Wendy Peter remembered, and had rebuilt a life with her husband and daughter that finally gave her a level of contentedness that has now been shattered.
An inexplicable fear pulls Wendy into relearning how to fly in order to give chase to Peter and Jane to get her daughter back. Her search takes her across familiar territories of the island: the mermaids’ cove, the pirates’ ship, the natives’ land. Yet, none of those places—or their people—are the same as from her memories. This Neverland has become hollowed under a young boy’s never-ending games. As she travels across this new landscape, she faces the hard truth that long-ago happy memories had always been filled with an undercurrent of haunted shadows.
While Wendy searches, Jane experiences life as Peter and the Lost Boys’ new mother. They call her Wendy insistently, refusing to allow her own identity. A gentle metaphor for the insipid ideology that women as a whole are a conglomerate rather than individuals. Layers of misogynistic expectations riddle Peter’s orders. His firm rules cement roles that must be played rather than allowing Jane or the Lost Boys to be anything but what he wishes of them. Yet this tendency pushes Jane to frustration, and allows her to note the strange way the whole island seems to bend to Peter’s fickle rule. She is quickly forgetting herself though, as is the way of Neverland, and might not know her own mother if Wendy does finally find her.
Interwoven between these dual present narratives are scenes from Wendy’s past, during a tumultuous time when her brother, John, had her committed to a mental hospital for women. This place, St. Bernadette’s, is more cage than medical facility, with Wendy left there on account of her supposed mad ramblings about Neverland. Neither John nor Michael seem to remember their adventures with Peter no matter how Wendy strove to remind them. Left under the care of an all-male staff, alongside many other women who were thrust there in order to be rid of the problems they represented, Wendy befriends a woman called Mary who has had to deal with even more injustice on account of her skin color and heritage. The two of them bond as they struggle to survive the abuse at St. Bernadette’s.
These scenes at St. Bernadette’s are a stark reminder of how easily women’s concerns have been ignored, mocked, or used as an excuse for abuse. They serve as explanation for Wendy’s insistence on saving Jane herself, for she knows there is no hope or help from any other quarter in London, for no man would believe her, just as they had refused to believe her the first time Peter had come into her life.
Wise craftily balances this historical fantasy with an acknowledgment of early 1900s expectations and behaviors concerning how women and women of color were treated, with the more modern belief of women being active participants, unwilling to simply follow the rules.
Wendy, Darling is the story of a mother and daughter who experience a similar adventure decades apart. It is a tale that resists the idea of women being ignored, dismissed, and manipulated by the men around them. A tale about women being able to recognize, survive, and even become the heroines in their own journeys, understanding that the problems never lay within who they were, but in the world unable to accept who they are or what they’d experienced or what path forward they wish to embrace outside of stringent roles placed upon them.
Wendy, Darling is about growing up and facing the world, even the darkest parts of it.
Review of The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler