The Very Mixed-Up and Peculiar Case of the Unfortunate Academy for Mysteriously Quirky Orphans

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

The first time I came to New York I rented a copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler from the library to read while riding the Greyhound there.  The book follows a pair of siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut who stow their clothes and toiletries in their musical instrument cases and run away from home to go live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I vividly remembered the descriptions of the period bedrooms where the kids slept, the bathrooms where they hid, and the fountain where they bathed and scrounged for change from reading the book as a kid and I wanted to wanted to refresh this fictional memory of the city before I experienced it in person for the first time.  The Met wasn’t as enchanting as I imagined it as a kid reading Mixed-Up FIles, but the city still charmed me enough for me to run away from my own home in Minnesota a year later to make a new home there.

I read a lot of books like this growing up. My mom is a children’s librarian so I have excellent taste.  I liked fantasy stories but more than that I Ioved books where brainy quirky kids encountered situations that were fantastical without being outright fantasy.  Blue Balleitt’s art-centered mysteries including The Wright 3 and Chasing Vermeer are a good example: a group of plucky youngsters breaking into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Art Institute of Chicago to solve puzzles and collect clues.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is another, centering on a secret foster home for children with different superpowers. 

Looking back at my childhood self, the fantasy I enjoyed in these books had less to do with art or magic than class.  The main characters in these books are almost always orphans, which as a kid I read as being both destitute and liberated, that are inducted into a very elite and often secret society because of some inborn wit or unique ability.  Despite their secrecy, these societies bear a lot of the marks of aristocracy – like the giant feasts, ancient castles, and always overstuffed armchairs of the Harry Potter series.  The Mysterious Benedict Society, currently being adapted by Hulu, gives us a double dose of this elitism: the main characters are inducted into the titular society, located in an old creaky mansion, and are then sent on a mission to investigate a different elite academy, the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. (As an aside, The Umbrella Academy does a pretty good job at picking apart this secret orphan academy trope.)

A Series of Unfortunate Events, my absolute favorite series as a kid, follows the same framework: the Baudelaire orphans, who are rich but can’t access their fortune directly for now, are shuttled between the presumably-not-quite-as-rich members of their late parents’ inner circle – who are of course also part of the secret society known as V.F.D.  The events are all tinged in darkness, but the siblings still spend most of the series in beautiful homes, reptile sanctuaries, fancy apartments, a fancier hotel, prep schools, and countless private libraries.

I’m thinking back on all this now because I just finished the YA romance Red, White, and Royal Blue which follows the love story between the first son of the (alternate reality female democratic) 45th president, and the prince of England.  As much as I loved living vicariously through their steamy-yet-YA-appropriate sex scenes and their romantic but carbon intensive flitting back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, in a lot of ways I couldn’t and don’t really want to relate.  Especially when the novel would take them to a wild West Hollywood karaoke night, a Texas summer home, or a covert night visit to the V&A museum, I felt alienated by the fantasy.  Sure, the author writes the characters as being frustrated with the families they were born into and critical of the colonial legacy of their respective empires, but it’s still hard to see myself in two of the most powerful people on the planet, even if they do like to kiss boys.  

I felt this same alienation watching the BBC adaptation of Normal People.  I’m thankful to the series for its Futura-y title cards and for giving us as good an analysis of class inequity as a prime network has ever done through the relationship between working class Connell and wealthy Marianne, but Connell’s trajectory does still smack of this same rags-to-riches fantasy.  Connell works his way through high school to get into Trinity College and then alternates late shifts at a grocery store with late nights studying in the Berkeley Library, which I’m sad to report is far too echoey to be as good a study spot as the show would have you believe.  But then after the difficult first year he’s given a full ride scholarship and can spend all of the show’s second season gallivanting with friends to Marianne’s family estate in Italy because of course Marianne’s family has a Italian estate.

As much as these narratives frustrate me and as much as I know that this system of wealth inequality and massively unequal resource use, the system all these stories reflect and reinforce, is the cause of the pain and harm surrounding us – I still catch myself longing for it.  Part of me, and not a small part, thinks there’s something in me that is special, that merits my induction into the secret society of the elite and once I’m there, once I enter into its ranks, then I can do my part to fix things.  And here I am, at Trinity College, walking cobbled paths and reading old books surrounded by old walls and plaques that say things like “PLEASE DO NOT SMOKE OR LOITER IN THE HALL OF HONOR.”  Here I am leveraging my future in the form of more student loans to engage with a system I know must die before it kills us all.  I ran away from home a while ago and I’ve been sleeping in the museum ever since.


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