One of the things that I think Down Among the Sticks and Bones does really well is the first act where the language of portal fantasy and fairy tales is turned back around onto the "real" world. Jacqueline and Jillian are conceived by their parents as the perfect accessory to their perfect lives. Mom wants the perfectly fashionable little girl, so she dresses Jacqueline in expensive dresses and grooms her to be quiet and still. Dad wanted the perfect little boy, so he dresses Jillian in jeans and pushes her into athletic sports.
It's tough to coat the bitter pill of emotional abuse and extreme gender stereotyping with the language of fairy tales, although one can easily find parallel stories in folklore collections. Here, the language serves to set up the contrast between the story of Jacqueline and Jillian's childhood to the story of Jack and Jill's adolescence. The children climb through a door out of an "idealized" narrative of suburban gender essentialism into a horrific narrative of vampires and mad scientists. Both stories include rules and negative consequences for failing to follow the rules.
Within a day after becoming "lost," Jacqueline and Jillian become Jack and Jill, the actors in a very different story. But new story gives the children choices. On the first night, the children choose to walk through the fields, parallel to the Lovecraftian horrors of the coast and the werewolves of the mountains.
Wolves came down from the mountains and unspeakable things came up from the sea, all gathering around the sleeping children and watching them dream the hours away. None made a move to touch the girls. They had made their choice. They had chosen The Moors. Their fate and their future was set.
On the second night, the children choose again between hidden plates of food. Jack's choice is revealed to be simple peasant fare, while Jill chooses rare roast beef. In the morning, they choose again. Jack becomes the unlikely apprentice to Dr. Bleak, who offers nothing other than hard work and relative poverty. Jill embraces life with The Master, the vampire lord of the village who offers luxury. (Much of this is foreshadowed in Every Heart a Doorway, where adult Jack and Jill play a key role.) Possibly one moral of Sticks and Bones is that children deprived of meaningful choice risk embracing any choice offered to them, no matter how horrible.
People who are familiar with Frankenstein (both novel and cinema), gothic vampire fiction, and Doorway can easily see how the third act turns out. And yet, we get a clear sense that Jack and Jill thrive in their new narrative roles. Jack is a lesbian who gets to make her own clothing, choose her vocation, and chooses to love a girl that Dr. Bleak raised from the dead. She finds ways to cope with her phobias of dirt and germs. Those choices are respected by the people closest to her. The last act strikes me as less "kill your lesbians" than casting Jack fully into a tragic role that had previously been largely male-exclusive. (A key exception is Rupetta, which features an extended lineage of tragic female mad scientists.) But some people are justifiably sensitive to that, so it's worth saying.
Jill fully embraces her role and her future as The Master's daughter. Her development is barely explored except for brief glimpses into how she's groomed in isolation from other children. I'm undecided as to whether that's a significant flaw or not. The climax of the novella feels a bit abrupt, the circumstances that culminate in Jack and Jill's exile from The Moors (and eventual conclusion at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children) come in a rush and left me wanting just a bit more. The novella seems almost, but not quite, the perfect frame for the Wayward Children stories.
The imagery of Sticks and Bones kept popping out at me visually in a way that I don't usually get from fiction. I was constantly thinking about how the story could be realized in cinema by someone like Del Toro, Selick, or Laika. However, I doubt that the book's ideas regarding forced gender roles and adolescent choices would be palatable for cinema. It wouldn't surprise me to see Sticks and Bones show up on challenged book lists.
It's turned into a book that sticks in my mind as something to discuss and share, and that's something.