The Controversial Politics of Fantastical Wish Fulfillment: a Review of T. J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea

We used to have a rescue, a Siberian husky, whom we named Lucy. And it was quite apparent to all who met him that Lucy is a boy and because we live in a deeply gendered society, people naturally wondered why we named him that—and I, naturally a troll, enjoyed everyone’s bafflement so much that I was not always forthright with the explanation. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Lucy and leaving him with his newfound family when we moved our entire household from one island to another last year, and I cannot help but think of him as I read the explanation for Lucy’s name in T. J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea.

Coincidentally, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about found families and islands, and it features someplace called the Marsyas Island Orphanage which is the home of an orphan named Lucy—short for Lucifer, for he is the Antichrist—where he lived with five other “dangerous” children: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, a were-Pomeranian, and a bellhop (which is just about the only aspect of Chauncey’s identity that is clear to us). The story follows Linus Baker, a 40-year-old Case Worker from the Department in Charge of Magical Youths as he travels to this highly classified location, burdened with the task of figuring out if the children are being adequately cared for (and if they, particularly Lucy, are likely to bring about the end of the world).

It was about this time that Linus felt his vision gray yet again at the thought of—of this child. This Lucy. He couldn’t believe that such a creature existed without his knowledge. Without the world’s knowledge. Oh, he understood why there was secrecy and could even comprehend the need for it. But the fact that there was a weapon of mass destruction in the body of a six-year-old and the world wasn’t prepared was simply shocking.

Right out of the gates, it has a lot about it that I love in fantasy:

  • A middle-aged protagonist
  • Who is just a regular person in a world where magic exists
  • Working a mundane, real world job

Maybe I just find the idea of fantasy heroes being no different from you and I to be appealing, and can identify better with a protagonist who is only able to do things that I can do. Maybe I enjoy the subversion as a sort of rebellion against the species of overpowered adolescent Chosen Ones who overpopulate the fantasy stories of my youth. Or maybe I am just getting old. Whatever it is, I find it amusing that when I was younger, heroes are the people I want to be and now, in my thirties, I want heroes to be like me. Both, in their own ways, are different forms of wish fulfillment.

Cover art for The House in the Cerulean Sea by Chris Sickels.

And if I can offer any criticism of The House in the Cerulean Sea, it’s that the book is pure wish fulfillment. It is idealistic to a fault. It offers up the absurd fantasy that one man doing small, achievable acts of kindness in the right place at the right time can change the world. And you know what? Fuck realism. As a kid, I loved those stories of some random farm boy discovering that he is literally chosen by fate to brandish earthshaking magic to vanquish evil. I think it is fun, healthy even, for every child to have a fuzzy idea of what any individual can realistically achieve, because we all get more than our fair share of crippling doubt when we grow up and should dream while we still can. So what if I, an adult, want to indulge in a daydream in which my Sword of Destiny is my good intentions, and believe—even for just a few hundred pages— that if I wield it sincerely and earnestly enough, I can defeat deeply entrenched systemic issues of bigotry and discrimination in just a couple of weeks? I am not much of a religion guy but I think it is important to have faith that no matter how unlikely it is, we can be anything we want. I think it is also important to believe that no matter how imperfect or flawed we are, we are still capable of making meaningful changes to the world we live in. We must believe that all of us are, by and large, good people. If we do not believe these half-lies, these fables, why do we even try? Why bother?

Change often starts with the smallest of whispers. Like-minded people building it up to a roar.

I believe that Mr Klune wrote this book with the sincere hope that he would be adding something good and positive to the world. In much the same way, I think the people who have picketed and railed against The House of the Cerulean Sea in recent weeks probably also hold the sincere belief that they are doing something good and positive. Now, I shan’t go too deeply into the history of it all because there have been reams enough written about it but basically, Mr Klune said that while he already figured out the general plot about an Orwellian world where magical children face bigotry and discrimination just for merely existing, the story didn’t become clear to him until he learned about the Sixties Scoop in Canada:

… beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, indigenous children were taken from their homes and families and placed into government-sanctioned facilities, such as residential schools. The goal was for primarily white, middle-class families across Canada, the US, and even Europe—to adopt these children. It’s estimated that over 20,000 indigenous children were taken, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the families of those affected reached a financial settlement with the Canadian government totaling over eight hundred million dollars.

The Big Idea: TJ Klune by T. J. Klune on John and Athena Scalzi’s site Whatever

And Mr Klune’s detractors believe they are combating some harm that he is doing with his little fantasy novel. As to why there is a delay between the publishing of the book last year and the outrage this year, it’s because it was dredged up in the wake of the discovery of the remains of 215 First Nation children near Kamloops Indian Residential School last month and then the subsequent discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School a few days ago. By writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, they said that Mr Klune is,

  • Profiting from both the cultural and literal genocide of indigenous people.
  • Glamourising residential schools.
  • Trivialising the tragedy by turning it into a feel good fantasy analogue story.
  • Perpetuating a white saviour narrative.

This ultimately resulted in T. J. Klune, a prominent queer author, wanting to commit suicide during Pride Month and needing to up his dose of antidepressants to cope. Now, while I am not white, I am also not an indigenous First Nation person either, and I don’t think anyone should listen to me but just in case you are, I wish to say I believe one has to be deeply uncharitable to read such heinous crimes into Mr Klune’s book. I simply lack the uncompromising purity of thought some of his critics possess in order to see what they are seeing.

One common thread I see is that many who are angry at Mr Klune did not even realise that he was drawing inspiration from the Sixties Scoop initially, with some even saying that they adored the book before they learned about that unseen aspect of it. I didn’t see any allusions in the text either and read it as an allegory for discrimination against queer people. Suppose he wrote a story that is more openly inspired by the Sixties Scoop, featuring actual indigenous children as opposed to magical beings, I would actually find that more objectionable, profiteering, and ghoulish. As far as I can tell, Mr Klune is not fronting a specific story about First Nation people and neither is it marketed that way at all. He isn’t taking up space, or trying to overshadow the voice of indigenous writers. He wrote a general story about discrimination and kindness using magical children as his allegorical stand in for marginalised people, a concept he conceived of even before he stumbled on the history residential schools. And it isn’t even a particularly original idea (I mean, it’s practically just X-Men) and if he didn’t talk about his inspirations, no one could even tell. They only knew because he informed them, and I daresay some of his haters only learned about the Sixties Scoop and residential schools because he chose to use his platform to talk about it.

So, this is it? This is why we have driven this gay man to thoughts of suicide?

And I feel that those who said he glamourised residential schools in the book are doing so in incredibly bad faith since the whole point of the book tries to make is that such state-run facilities are bad. Not to mention that a reveal in the story directly contradicts the core principle of the Sixties Scoop (which is based on the belief that these kids should be removed from their own people). I can’t help wondering if they even read the same book I did.

As for the charge of trivialising an actual tragedy, I think one has to decide for themselves if a story can trivialise something it literally does not reference in the text at all, even though the author may have drawn inspiration from it. And furthermore, Linus’ ethnicity was never clarified in the book, not even once. The “argument” for that accusation, if I follow their logic correctly, is that since Linus is a regular human interacting with an underclass of magic beings, he is a stand-in for white people (even though he has as much a chance of being white as Talia or Lucy, who are magical children). I suspect I am liable to dislocate a shoulder if I try to reach as far as that.

Again, I am not opposed to anyone wanting to read whatever it is they want into any text but I just want to spend a minute here to ask ourselves: what harm are we averting, mitigating, or neutralising here exactly by attacking Mr Klune? What damage had The House in the Cerulean Sea done to indigenous people? I put to you that not even Mr Klune’s harshest critics believe that a reasonable person reading this book would come away with the idea that indigenous children should be forcibly adopted by white parents or placed in residential schools. The opposite, if anything.

Instead, what I see is a mostly white mob being outraged on indigenous people’s behalf and the only tangible thing that is harmed is Mr Klune’s mental health. Sure, we can say that it is unreasonable (trivialising, even) to fantasise about how one man is able to dismantle systemic racism with a little help from some of his friends, but I would say it is equally unreasonable to believe that by directing hate to an author who wrote a book which is only tenuously linked to a tragedy that had befallen First Nation people, they have done even the least bit of good for them. And I understand why they did it. It’s the same reason why Mr Klune wrote the book, why I love the book, and why they hate the book. It is wish-fulfillment. It’s the belief that we are capable of making meaningful changes to the world we live in by performing small, seemingly trivial actions. It comes from a place of anger and an unhappiness at the state of the world, and a sincere wish to right the wrongs we see. It is a power fantasy birthed by our own sense of powerlessness.

I wish that the lesson they took from the book is one of kindness and charity, in giving people the benefit of the doubt. There are many villains in the world, and I remain unconvinced that T. J. Klune is one of them. There is a particular passage in The House in the Cerulean Sea that stuck with me and after everything that had transpired in the past few weeks for Mr Klune, it had taken on new significance,

I am but paper. Brittle and thin. I am held up to the sun, and it shines right through me. I get written on, and I can never be used again. These scratches are a history. They’re a story. They tell things for others to read, but they only see the words, and not what the words are written upon. I am but paper, and though there are many like me, none are exactly the same. I am parched parchment. I have lines. I have holes. Get me wet, and I melt. Light me on fire, and I burn. Take me in hardened hands, and I crumple. I tear. I am but paper. Brittle and thin.

So I am going to say something nice (and true) about Mr Klune’s book because I think we can be kinder to this paper man.

If you can distill a lovely day by the sea, your favourite song, and a warm hug by someone who loves you dearly into the form of a book, that book would be T. J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea. I alternated between smiling to myself and tearing up when I read it. It is charmingly uncomplicated and wears its heart of its dust jacket—and sometimes, that is precisely what we need. It’s the best book I read this year and I suspect it will remain, always, one of the sweetest books I have ever read.

Rating: 4.75/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

3 thoughts on “The Controversial Politics of Fantastical Wish Fulfillment: a Review of T. J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea

  1. I have only just been following this controversy for fifteen minutes. Your article is supremely well written, and I think you have a good idea of what’s really going on.

    Like

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