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SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
It’s difficult to tell whether Cynthia Leitich Smith’s new middle grade novel, “Sisters of the Neversea,” is a well-intentioned attempt at a rewrite of J. M. Barrie’s 1911 novel “Peter Pan” (originally titled “Peter and Wendy”); a response to it; or a creative reimagining. Maybe it’s all three, which might be part of the reason it can feel a little convoluted.
The author of the award-winning 2018 young adult novel “Hearts Unbroken” chooses, at first, to focus her readers’ attention on Wendy Darling and her stepsister, Lily. Wendy’s mother has died and her father has remarried a Native woman — who, like Smith, is Muscogee Creek, and who comes with a son and daughter of her own, John and Lily. The Darlings also have been transported forward in time, from Victorian England to modern-day Tulsa, Okla. Soon Wendy will travel to Neverland, accompanied by her younger half brother, Michael, and eventually Lily. (John has graduated from high school and doesn’t play much of a role here.)
It’s important to note that Barrie’s portrayal of Native Americans in “Peter Pan” is, shall we say, extremely problematic. Peter calls them “Piccaninnies.” Barrie’s narrator describes them as “savages.” Women are subject to the narrator’s contempt as well; they serve at the whims of male characters. Tiger Lily, a proud “redskin” girl, is a pawn whom the males — Peter Pan and Captain Hook among them — spar over. “Coquettish, cold and amorous by turns,” the young Native princess is also, Barrie intimates, in love with the immature, inconstant Peter Pan.
Smith has a way with description. She has a keen eye and deep affinity for the natural world. Her verbal rendering of place and texture — of sound, color and mood — is beautifully evocative. And she writes the island of Neverland as a complicated character in and of itself. Sadly, she isn’t always able to do the same with her human charges, to make them fully believable and distinct. This includes Peter Pan, who is mostly portrayed as a “Lord of the Flies”-like monster — he kills lion cubs and terrorizes people and animals alike — until he has a sudden change of heart, and all the destruction he’s left behind is forgiven.