I read Dia Calhoun's 2005 novel The Phoenix Dance this week because it's the book of the month for readergirlz (celebrating gutsy girls in life and literature). I found it a fascinating story and character study. The Phoenix Dance is a retelling of a Brothers Grimm tale about twelve dancing princesses, and is also an exploration of bipolar disorder.
In the Brothers Grimm story, twelve princesses sleep in a locked room every night. Every morning when their father unlocks the door he finds their shoes worn to shreds because the princesses have somehow been dancing all night. This made Dia Calhoun, who has bipolar disorder herself (as revealed in the afterword), think of the princesses as being in a manic state. She then created the character of Phoenix Dance, an ordinary girl struggling with the disorder while trying to help the princesses.
In the book, Phoenix's illness is called The Illness of the Two Kingdoms: the Kingdom of Brilliance (the manic phase) and the Kingdom of Darkness (the depressive phase). Even Phoenix's name reflects the nature of bipolar disorder - a Phoenix burns, dies, and then rises from the ashes to burn again. Though the name of the illness is fanciful in the book, the disorder is presented as a physical and mental illness, not a spell.
It's clear to the reader from very early in the story that something is amiss with Phoenix, a young girl apprenticed to the royal shoemaker. Phoenix's aunts refer to her moods as "glittery and flighty", and fear the point at which the glittery phase will wind down, leaving her in the "Nethersea" of depression. Sometimes she can't stop laughing. At other times she can't get herself out of bed. Eventually, Phoenix turns to medication to help. However, she rails against the side effects, and the way that the medicine dampens the high points. This aspect of the book felt particularly authentic to me - the struggle to have medicine help, but to maintain one's own true spirit.
I liked the fantasy world of Windward, a community of islands. There are political struggles between royalists and democrats. There are people dancing in the streets, and princesses who rail against their destinies. There's magic, but it's not overwhelming. I thought that presenting Phoenix's struggles in this fantasy environment worked well. The scenes in which Phoenix talks to a healer about her condition might have been too blunt or too "educational" in a real-world environment. But the fantasy background softens this, and makes it easier to empathize with Phoenix.
I think that fans of fantasy, especially re-told fairy tales, will enjoy this book, and that fans of Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story (about a teen's time in a mental ward) will, too. I think that for teens suffering from any kind of mood disorder (bipolar, depression, etc.), this book could be transforming. Because Phoenix struggles with her disorder, but she's her own person, too. She has adventures, and rescues people. She's not a helpless victim of her circumstances by any means.
Tune into the readergirlz newsletter this month for a playlist of songs to listen to while reading the book, a series of discussion questions, a chat with the author, and other activities related to The Phoenix Dance.
Book: The Phoenix Dance
Author: Dia Calhoun (Dia is also a readergirlz diva)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Original Publication Date: September 2005
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Roots, Leaves, and Threads. See also Miss Erin's interview with Dia Calhoun. Little Willow has an interview forthcoming.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.