Bringing uncommon sources of wisdom to young readers
In Harmony Wagner’s first young adult novel, Queen of the Crows (based on her short film of the same name), we are guided through the struggles and triumphs of eleven-year-old Elsa. The young protagonist is a resilient and thoughtful girl whose life is shaped around her mother Dana, who lives with bipolar disorder. Elsa and her aunt Claire–Elsa’s primary support through most of the story–show us the legacy of adaptability and sacrifice in families affected by mental illness.
Wagner never sugar coats the realities of growing up with a parent impacted by mental disorder. The financial, social and academic instability that Elsa experiences is woven throughout the novel. Yet, we see in her aunt Claire a role model, friend, and most importantly, a steady and loving parental figure Elsa can rely on. This book highlights just how important a single, supportive person can be in the life of a young person impacted by an atmosphere of psychological instability.
Elsa’s mother Dana, a woman who has struggled emotionally with chaotic highs and dangerous lows, is absent and in hospital for most of the novel. But, toward the end of the story, her letter to Elsa–expressing her remorse and her commitment to heal and return to supporting her daughter, reveals a genuine sense of hope and redemption.
What makes Queen of the Crows unique is the author’s use of a compassionate and courageous protagonist in exploring issues that might otherwise be challenging for young readers. Elsa is both understanding and accepting of her circumstances, and courageous in her ability to move forward in spite of them. She never appears weak or pitiable, regardless of the difficulties she encounters. She is a well-constructed, sensitive, imaginative and strong young woman. The reader marks Elsa’s challenges, all the while intuiting that she has everything she needs to survive her circumstances.
Wagner’s thoughtful and nuanced depiction of all her characters’ foibles and strengths highlights one of the book’s prominent themes–compassion. We see how Elsa’s struggles only strengthen her capacity for empathy. This is also reflected in her one friend and ally at school, Eh Ta Taw, a young refugee boy from Burma. The author poignantly illustrates the power of allies bound together in their common experience of suffering.
Wagner also uses the power of magic realism to illustrate Elsa’s deep compassion. Throughout most of the novel Elsa communicates with a murder of crows in her local park, taking on some of their capabilities in remarkable ways. She finds a much needed camaraderie, mutualism and friendship with one crow in particular, named Cracks–a smart, scrappy and trickster-like animal who, like Elsa, is often underestimated by his peers.
One particular symbolic reference for crows is that of insight and a broad-minded wisdom. Wagner uses this element in her narrative–seamlessly weaving it through Elsa’s interactions with the crows and informing Elsa’s ability to cope with the gravity of her human life. Elsa truly becomes one of the crows when she begins “seeing things with a broader vision and taking everyone into account.”
Through Elsa’s relationship with the crows, we see inside a world that parallels ours–one where judgments and quick assumptions can create divisions among us, but where we always have access to a bigger picture and a deeper understanding of community. There is a fascinating turn toward the end of the novel where we witness Elsa cope with an instance of bullying at school using crow-like tactics, which ultimately lands her in the office of a child psychiatrist who prescribes medicinal treatment.
We are never entirely sure if there are any elements of mental illness in Elsa’s communication with and emulation of the crows. We also never see whether Elsa takes the medication prescribed to her. But we do see the wonder and magic in Elsa’s relationship with the crows and how much support they have been on her journey of coping with her mother’s mental illness. Subtly, non-confrontationally, Wagner shows that not all aspects of mental illness must be negative, nor must all elements of magic and otherworldly experience actually point to mental illness.
Wagner’s first novel presents a challenging and realistic picture of its protagonist’s coming of age, while simultaneously painting a complementary world filled with wonder, friendship and learning. As we follow Elsa through her connection with Cracks and the other crows, we are invited to contemplate magic and the power of the imagination to help us to heal. Wagner’s characters are shaped by the impact of mental illness, but her story is an uplifting one, which shines with compassion, sensitivity and hope. The author shows the courage needed to expand our view, to discover magic where we might least expect to find it.
One of the strengths of fiction is its capacity to connect us to experiences beyond the scope of our own, and to live inside the minds of characters as they grapple with their lives in ways that might surprise us. Queen of the Crows reveals the experience of a young person’s world shaped by mental illness–a topic so rarely depicted with such empathy and vision.
Although it is not a direct form of advocacy, this novel achieves what well-made fiction does best–it takes us inside a world often shrouded by stigma and shame,and shows us the humour, the joy and the light. With Elsa as our guide, we learn to move beyond fear and misunderstanding and to embrace differences. We not only come to know the realities of mental illness; we see the humanity and beauty of Wagner’s characters within their suffering. Queen of the Crows is a beautiful, heart-warming first novel and a true testament to the power of fiction.