What to Read: Sara Flannery Murphy’s New Novel ‘The Wonder State’

Despite owing an obvious debt to Stephen King, Murphy tells a story that cuts deeper than its predecessor in several ways.

A group of children discovers that their small hometown is a focus for supernatural energy and inexplicable happenings. Their quest for explanations ends ambiguously; years later, they have mostly moved on with their lives and tried to put the past behind them. But a mysterious message from the only member of the group who stayed behind calls them back to fulfill their oaths and confront the evils they failed to lay to rest.

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Courtesy Macmillan

If you’ve been tuned into pop culture at all in the last few decades, you probably recognize that as a description of Stephen King’s 1986 It, adapted into two hit films in 2017 and 2019. But that same description is also the plot of Sara Flannery Murphy’s new novel, The Wonder State.

The Wonder State definitely owes a debt to King, both in its general outline and in its structure, which alternates two timelines, high school and adult.  There are important differences as well, though. Murphy’s novel is set in the (fictional) Arkansas town of Eternal Springs nestled in the Ozarks, rather than in the (fictional) Maine town of Derry. King’s book is horror; Murphy’s straddles the boundary between fantasy and magical realism.

And, perhaps most importantly, despite having fewer scenes of hideous dismemberment by evil clowns, The Wonder State in many ways cuts deeper than its predecessor. For King, the antagonist was that evil clown first and maybe complicit adults second; the friendship of the young protagonists was pure and unbreakable. In Murphy’s novel, in contrast, the real horror is that your friends were never really who you thought they were, and that, while betrayal may be exacerbated by adulthood, its seeds are sown almost as soon as you find someone to betray.

Murphy’s novel is mostly told from the perspective of Jay. In 1999, Jay is a high school senior, would-be artist and social outcast who still struggles with her mother’s suicide. Jay’s sole friend, Brandi, lives on the ragged edge of poverty with her stepfather Gene.

Then, unexpectedly, Jay and Brandi become friends with Hilma and Max, the glamorous and wealthy children of painters attracted to the area for the year by the local color and an artist’s grant.

Hilma is convinced a reclusive and mentally ill architect, Theodora Trader, built a number of magic houses in Eternal Springs. Jay and Brandi confirm it; they’ve long visited a Truth House, where (like the name says) people are compelled to speak only the truth. The four, along with class brain Charlie and football hero Iggy, set out on a quest for the other houses, and for what Hilma believes is a door into another world.

That door is a not especially concealed metaphor for escape—from a small town with limited options, from abusive families and peers, from painful memories. Hilma and Max symbolize the magic of a world outside Eternal Springs, a fantasyland of possibilities.

Hilma and Max are also just kids though—and eventually, just adults. When Brandi, who never leaves Eternal Springs, calls the rest of them home in 2015, Jay leaves her budding art career in Albany. By the time she gets back home, Brandi has disappeared, and the rest of her friends are more-or-less successes, but not exactly fairytale-happy.

Part of the unhappiness is that they’ve been dragged back to Eternal Springs in the first place, suspending their lives and their projects to engage in a futile search for their missing friend. Charlie, who is Black and gay, expresses the collective anger and despair most eloquently, and most pointedly. “I deserve to grow beyond my childhood friendships without sacrificing everything I’ve created,” he says.

Young people don’t choose where or with who they grow up; they don’t necessarily even realize how their options are limited. Few people want to be their high school selves for their whole lives. Everyone—and especially perhaps people like Charlie or Brandi—deserves a chance to become someone who isn’t defined by the limits, or trauma, of high school.

But Eternal Springs isn’t just a trap that reels the friends back in. It’s also a kind of magic that shadows their lives not because they can’t escape, but because they can’t return. Jay and Iggy had a brief senior-year romance which neither has really moved past. The magic of Eternal Springs haunts the others as well, both with might-have-beens and with present-day temptations. And they’re all carrying around the guilt of betraying Brandi by leaving her to clean up and take the blame for the messes they left behind, magical and otherwise.

Perhaps the biggest difference between The Wonder State and It—or most other kids-find-magic books—is destiny. Jay hopes that magic will make them “Better people,” the way Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy become warriors, kings and queens in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. But Charlie is skeptical. They aren’t royalty, he says; “chances are we haven’t been prophesied or foretold.”

The past and the future and the magic of both are what make you. But even more perhaps they’re what you make of them. “We’re not going to battle some ancient evil that can only be overcome by boring teenagers,” as Charlie says. The dangers they face are more mundane: abusive parents, condescending parents, low-grade bullying, cops, poverty, their own ignorance, greed, unfaithfulness and cruelty. It made sense perhaps for Stephen King, already one of the most popular writers in the world, to see the small town as a launching pad for great feats—all his young adventurers grow up to be wealthy and/or famous. In contrast, Murphy’s earlier novels, Girl One and The Possessions, were successful but not that successful—just as Jay’s artistic career is promising but not magically so.

This isn’t to say that Murphy’s book is more downbeat than It. The Wonder State isn’t grim, or even unremittingly sad. It’s bittersweet, on a small, human scale, sans evil clowns, eldritch evils or Y2K apocalypses. Jay doesn’t save the world, and her efforts to save her friends or herself are intermittently successful at best. But friendship, home and magic still make a place in her life when she finds a way to make a place for them. You don’t generally get to live in a state of wonder eternally. Sometimes, though, visiting is enough.

What to Read: Sara Flannery Murphy’s New Novel ‘The Wonder State’