Kara French is a PhD Candiate in the Joint Program in Women’s Studies and History at the University of Michigan where she studies the politics of sexual restraint in the early republic. In addition to being an expert on early Shaker religious experiences, the politics of Catholic convents in nineteenth-century America, and the vegetarianism of Sylvester Graham, she is an avid reader whose interests include the comic romance novels of Lauren Willig as well as classics like those of Jane Austen and George Eliot.
As a grad student who occasionally likes to take a vacation from high theory and nineteenth century manuscripts by reading young adult (YA) fiction, when my colleague Amanda solicited reviewers for YA literature by LDS authors, I jumped at the opportunity. This was part of a larger conversation we were having about how the books we had read as young men and women shaped our thinking about gender and sexuality during those all-important formative years. We thought it would be interesting to see if the YA lit written by LDS authors reflected any particularly Mormon thinking about gender. I should also note that I am a historian of 19th century American religion and women’s studies, not specifically Mormon Studies. So, I really appreciate the chance to come play in your sandbox here at Juvenile Instructor.
I chose Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, which truthfully had been on my radar for awhile. I’m a huge fan of re-told or re-imagined fairy tales, and Princess Academy certainly fits the bill. This is the story of Miri, a fourteen year old girl growing up in the isolated village of Mount Eskel. The lives of the poor but peaceful villagers are turned upside down when it is prophesized that the bride of the next prince will come from their humble town. All the girls in the village aged twelve to eighteen (but no older than that because the princess cannot be older than the prince!) are required to attend the “Princess Academy,” where over the course of the year they will be transformed from rough-mannered country girls into sophisticated young ladies. In typical Cinderella fashion, at the end of the year there will be a ball and the prince will choose his bride. Much of the story centers around the ambivalence Miri and the other girls feel about being selected as the princess, and whether they could leave their beloved hometown behind to embark upon a different life in the cosmopolitan capital.
Admittedly, on the surface the premise of this book looks anything but feminist. I personally winced a little at the thought of girls younger than sixteen being taken away from their families so they can be groomed to marry someone, even if he is a prince. But Princess Academy actually sends a surprisingly empowering message about female agency. It is a powerful tonic against the contemporary “princess culture” that has sprung up around the Disney animated films. I’m talking about the phenomenon of young girls today sporting $80-$100 dresses from the Disney store and all the attendant merchandise that goes along with the idea of being a “princess.” Hale’s book sharply rejects that kind of consumerism. While Miri and the rest of the girls are certainly tempted to become the princess because it would mean an easier life for their poor families, they still remain “mountain girls,” and are suspicious of the soft luxurious life the “lowlander” elites live.
Rather than reject their hardscrabble upbringing in favor of the easy life of a princess, the girls actually use their education to improve life on Mount Eskel for everyone. Which brings me to a second point, Princess Academy’s strong endorsement for education, and female education in particular. When the story begins, no one in the isolated village of Mount Eskel can read or write. Even the adults know little about the laws of their country and their ignorance of business practices lead to them getting swindled by traders who seek the village’s most profitable commodity, a marble-like stone called linder. Miri and the rest of the girls share the education they received at the Academy with the rest of the village and end up founding a school so their parents, brothers and neighbors can learn how to read as well. This education revolution changes life on Mount Eskel for the better. In the end, one girl says it’s not that the kingdom needed a princess from Mount Eskel, but that Mount Eskel needed an Academy. However, it should be noted that the actual Princess Academy in the story is kind of terrible, run by a tyrannical teacher that whips the girls for the slightest infraction and looks down upon them for being from a poor territory. Hogwarts, it ain’t.
Religion does not play a very large role in Princess Academy. There are references to the girls’ desire to go home and attend chapel regularly with their families, but no overt discussions of faith. However, it is easy to spot some of the influences of Mormon history and culture on Hale’s story. For one, the setting of Mount Eskel, a harsh and remote place, calls to mind 19th century Deseret. This is compounded by the fact that Mount Eskel is a mere territory and unable to have full political participation in the kingdom until the book’s end. Like the popular image of the Mormon pioneer family, the men and women of Miri’s town work together to carve out a living on the mountaintop. This means hard physical labor in the quarry for both genders. Their attitude is very reminiscent of the statements made by 19th century Mormon suffragists that Utah women deserved the vote because men and women had built the state together. There’s also a strong emphasis on family, to the point where our protagonist is afraid to be chosen by the Prince because it would mean leaving her father and sister behind. One could easily draw a parallel between the close-knit community of Mount Eskel and a Mormon congregation.
But honestly, I’m not certain if these details really mark this book as “Mormon.” Once I know a piece of information about a creator of a given work- whether that is the author’s religion, or birthplace or sexual orientation, I can’t help searching for those influences in the text. The LDS influences in Princess Academy are much less overt than in say Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborntrilogy or even the hyper-popular Twilight series. I devoured Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series in high school without any knowledge of Card’s religion or his political beliefs, simply because the first four books told an engaging story. I imagine the majority of non-LDS readers who pick up Hale’s book would likely walk away with the same impression. I would be interested in hearing in the comments from those of you who read Princess Academy as young adults or who have shared it with younger cousins, nieces, students, etc. Does Hale occupy a special place in Mormon readers’ hearts as a childhood favorite?
Princess Academy is a fine book, with a plucky heroine, and one I would be happy to have my own daughter (or son) read some day. It’s a refreshing and empowering twist on the tired Cinderella trope. And though it may be written by a Mormon author, its message about the value of education and community is one that everyone can appreciate.