I can trace my love of the wonkomance back a long way.
Sometimes I think it started when I read Jane Eyre in seventh grade. Or maybe it all began even earlier, with a genuine romance novel I sneaked off my mom’s nightstand that I recall featuring a knife placed under a bed to cut the pain of childbirth, accidental sex in the forest (and it was truly accidental–I cannot tell you how much confusion this scene caused 10-year-old me about matters of anatomy), and a moon-shaped birthmark on the heroine’s breast.
But although that particular book left me disturbed, confused, and intrigued, I can blame my continuing love of wonkomance squarely on the writing of two YA books. I’ll be talking about them both in my Foundations of Wonk posts.
On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voigt is set in an imaginary world called only The Kingdom. Birle, the Innkeeper’s daughter in her small village, is dreading her upcoming wedding to one of the hunters she met at the annual fair. One night, she discovers a thief trying to steal one of the inn’s fishing boats, and rashly jumps in the water to try and save it. The “thief” is actually a Lord of the Kingdom who has chosen to escape his destined role as heir, and Birle almost immediately falls in love with him.
Birle and Orien end up shipwrecked on a desolate island and nearly die, are rescued, then sold as slaves by pirates in the dangerous City to the south. Birle is relatively lucky to be bought by a scholar who uses her to assist his herbal work, but Orien is sold to the mines, which everyone knows is a death sentence.
Like many old-school romance novels, this book is a coming-of-age story for Birle as much as it is a romance. But unlike many old-school romance novels, the power dynamic between Birle and Orien shifts, changes, grows equal as the book progresses.
Birle loves Orien from the start. She is younger than he is, though not by many years, and as a peasant villager, has far less power. But during their time in slavery, Birle grows, learns, becomes invaluable to the scholar she assists. She finds her identity and her footing, while Orien is broken, both physically and emotionally. In the end, she is the one who rescues him.
When Orien and Birle have escaped the City and are in the forest, hiding while Orien rebuilds his strength for the journey home, Orien finally falls in love with Birle in return. When he proposes marriage, she argues about the difference in their social classes. “We are not equal,” she tells him.
“We were not,” he answers. “You gave me your heart, and I gave you nothing in return. Now I give you mine.”
I do not wish to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, but Birle is self-aware enough, in the end, to make a choice that she knows is best for herself, and it is up to Orien to decide if he is willing to be brave enough to join her.
I loved this book as a child, and I love it still as an adult, for a number of reasons. Birle’s growth is so emotionally honest and real; Orien’s damage and recovery is as well. And, though the references are oblique, the reality of sexual desire and the dangers inherent in being a young woman are both portrayed more openly than they were in most young adult literature of the time. Birle desires Orien. When they do decide to act on that desire, it is entirely as equals– no coercion, no ignorant young maid with an experienced rake.
And yet, this is a romance. Love endures. Love is determined. Birle’s love saves Orien; Orien’s love makes Birle stronger.
I can only think of one other book that gave me so much hope for my own romantic future, and that’s the one I’ll write about next time.
What books shaped your romantic hopes and dreams? Which ones taught you to love romance? And what did they teach you about love and desire?