This Newberry Medal winning YA novel is a fantasy/fairy tale about hope’s triumph over sorrow. Kelly Barnhill writes about a world populated by witches, dragons, monsters, and humans. She writes of bogs, forests, and towns separated by fear and magic. In this world, one town in particular, the Protectorate, engages in a terrible human sacrifice every year, wherein the youngest child in town is left in the forest as a tribute to an evil witch. It is an age old practice, perpetuated by the town Elders with support from the Sisters of the Star who act as military/police. No one questions the wisdom of this practice or openly protests against it. Until the day someone does.
The plotting of the story is intricately woven. It opens with the yearly sacrifice. The Elder Gherland and his council have determined which baby is youngest and will be sacrificed to the witch. Gherland’s nephew Antain, who is about 12-13 years old, goes along for the sacrifice as part of his apprenticeship. But while in the past parents had given up their babies without incident, this time, a parent, a woman, fights back. She has long dark hair and a crescent moon mark on her forehead, as does her infant daughter. She tries to evade the council, but the Sisters are there to enforce the law, making sure the baby is handed over and the mother is imprisoned in the tower forevermore. Antain, shaken, says nothing but continues with the procession to the forest, where the baby is left in a clearing. Gherland and the Elders assume all of the babies die there, either from exposure or predatory animals. Yet, after they leave, a witch does appear. Xan appears every year to rescue these babies and give them to loving families in towns far away. She doesn’t understand why these babies keep showing up, but she feeds them starlight to sustain them until she can place them with good people who will always love them and treasure them. This time, she feels such a bond to the child, she becomes a bit distracted and accidentally feeds her moonlight, thus enmagicking her. Xan decides she will keep this baby, Luna, to be her granddaughter.
From here, the plot goes in two directions which will eventually merge back together. First there is the story of Xan and Luna living in the forest. Xan’s friends are a bog monster/poet named Glerk, who is older than magic; and a dragon named Fyrian who thinks he is enormous but is actually quite small and doesn’t ever grow, which is odd. Luna’s magic is incredibly powerful, but since she is just a child and cannot control it, Xan takes measures to keep her safe. These measures involve suppressing Luna’s magic and even preventing her from hearing/seeing/knowing anything at all about magic until she is 13. Suppressing this knowledge creates unexpected dangers, and Xan begins to realize that there is much about her own past that she cannot remember, that seems to be suppressed, too.
The plot also delves into the strange things happening in the Protectorate. Antain, the young man who was meant to be an Elder, was so disturbed by what he had seen at the sacrifice that he makes a critical choice. He cannot get the dark haired mother out of his mind. She is imprisoned in the tower and has gone mad with her grief and sorrow. The tower, in addition to being a sort of prison, is also the center of learning and education. Yet, only the Sisters of the Star have access to the tower, to education, to combat skills, and to the madwoman locked within. As Antain was once a servant within the tower, he uses his connections there, particularly with the Head Sister Ignatia, to try to speak with the madwoman. His brief meeting with her will have permanent consequences for Antain and for the madwoman, who has a strange ability to conjure up paper, create maps, and turn the papers into birds.
Barnhill goes back and forth between forest and town, and follows Luna as she grows up and begins to get an inkling of her powers. Barnhill also takes us back into Xan’s past, where things that she is on the cusp of remembering will become critical for the safety and survival of Luna and the world. The debilitating power of sorrow and the empowering nature of hope are themes running through the story, and the resolution to the story involves not just discovering the truth about the sacrifice but also 1) how one deals with one’s feelings when the truth is known, and 2) how one manages loss/death. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a beautiful story of family and the power over hope to sustain us in our sorrows.