Originally published in Area of Effect magazine
I made my very first friend in grade one with a simple offer: “Wanna play?” As I approach my thirties, I wish making friends was still that easy. The Six, the first book in K.B. Hoyle’s The Gateway Chronicles series, reminds me of the rose-coloured glasses I see my childhood and adolescence through. In The Six, Friendship is hard for Darcy Pennington. Darcy is often in her head and plagued by self-doubt, but she’s also convinced she knows what she wants. Apparently, I have no problem identifying with a fictional 13-year-old girl, at least not when her problems are this real. Early in the story, Darcy envies the ease with which her little brother can talk to new people and just hit it off, and this sense of having little control over her relationships follows Darcy throughout the story.
Friendship may not come easily to Darcy, but it isn’t because nobody wants to be friends with her. Samantha Palm is blonde, blue-eyed and disdained by Darcy for being overweight. Darcy tries to bury this ugly truth about herself under introverted excuses like wanting to be alone, but really, the girl who has trouble making friends is overly choosy about who she associates with. Darcy is worried that Sam’s friendship—and that of tag-along nerd, Lewis—might get in the way of her making other, preferable friends.
I scoffed at Darcy’s petty reasoning as I read, but this tug-of-war between what’s available to her and her ideals became the emotional crux of the story for me. Both Darcy and I want the full life that comes with deep relationships, but where we start encountering problems is how we create a very particular vision of the full life we want, missing out on the fullness that’s there.
Even in Alithea, the magical world where everything right down to the colours is brighter—more full—than the dull real world, Darcy still has difficulty seeing past what she wants and seeing what she could have. She isn’t a selfish monster, but is flawed in her unwillingness to accept imperfection in her relationships.
As with most childhood friendships, Darcy, Sam, and the others are initially brought together through circumstance and not by choice. I made friends with the kid in my first grade class because he was the first kid I saw on the playground. Similarly, Darcy and Sam live on the same street, all six kids are stuck at Cedar Cove beyond cell reception by their parents’ whim, and they eventually spend a magically constricted year in Alithea at the will of the mysterious Pateros. And yet, friendships are made up of a million little choices even when they don’t begin with our choosing. Making the choice to offer someone the benefit of the doubt, to ask honest questions, and to listen closely are all meaningful choices that build relationships. This is just as true—if not more—when these chosen offerings are not immediately reciprocated.
Darcy is enchanted when she enters Alithea but, for all the danger in that magical land, she smuggles in the greatest dangers within herself and they grow in her self-imposed isolation. Sam is persistent in her quest to carefully graft Darcy into her flourishing Cedar Cove friendships, but Darcy remains preoccupied with getting what she wants on her own terms.
Thanks to some strange magic, Darcy and Sam are both able to see a reflection of themselves as they truly are and not as they assume themselves to be. The two girls are as different on the inside as they are on the outside—but it’s Sam, whom Darcy once saw as overeager, overweight, and unfit for friendship, who has no cause to be ashamed. Despite this, Darcy tragically attempts to earn the respect and admiration already freely offered by Sam and that was available from the other kids thanks to Sam’s willingness to vouch for her.
In Alithea, each of the kids possess a unique magical power meant to help them overcome the Shadow, an entity “the six” are prophesied to overthrow. After the reveal of an uncomfortable prophecy and her inability to discover her own magic, she withdraws from her friends in Alithea. When Darcy finally uncovers her talent, she hides it from her friends and trains in secret so she can show them all how much she didn’t need them. It’s not a good look on her.
Sam and the other kids are put in the unenviable situation of deciding whether to give Darcy the isolation she seeks, or to continue offering the friendship she needs. It’s no spoiler to say it’s complicated, because friendships are never exactly as we would have them be. Often the problem doesn’t look like Darcy’s at all. As adults, our struggles with friendship can look more like the space and silence that settles between old friends, or the resigned loneliness of those who’ve reached out and been met with apathy. After all, adults are rarely forced into friend-making situations. Darcy almost misses out on the value of the friends right in front of her, a danger that creeps up on me every time I replace the person in front of me with an idealized version from my imagination.
As adults, we’re not thrown into friendship-making situations as often as we were as children. We no longer have our parents planning playdates for us, recesses where asking someone to play tag is the norm, or the blissful ignorance of not knowing disappointment. Making friends can be a challenge, and choosing loneliness over vulnerability is tempting, especially when I’m facing a relationship with someone as flawed as I am. I can’t choose how my friends will exercise their friendship: quietly, persistently, or even uncomfortably. But that’s good, because otherwise I might end up with all the friends I want, but none of the friends I need.
Making strong friendships means accepting people as they are; wanting a good thing desperately while desiring an ideal, personalized version is one way to guarantee disappointment with the very good things that come our way. And once we’ve learned to set aside our own pride, the journey to finding these true friends can also mean putting ourselves out there again and again, until we find someone willing to set aside their expectations in a similar way. The Six is a testament to the challenges and rewards of friendship and to the beautiful truth that the rewards are rarely ever earned.