Disney operates through dreams and happiness, so one would think a new Disney park next door would yield dump trucks full of those magical materials. However, such is not the case in Michael Knight’s At Briarwood School for Girls. Set at a wealthy private school in Prince Williams County, At Briarwood follows Lenore Littlefield and her eclectic group of rebellious friends, lonely teachers and a relatable ghost, as she navigates difficult life decisions, an impending theme park and a quest for a small sliver of happiness.
Based on Disney’s true plans to build the theme park, Disney’s America, in historical Virginia, Knight’s story revolves around the question of how history is written, how it will be remembered—and how important any of it is. Although Disney serves as a perfect medium through which the characters compare life and history, the story truly focuses on the individual lives of a few key characters. Our omniscient narrator guides us with ease through the lives and thoughts of Lenore, who is pregnant and has told no one; Mr. Bishop, who is a lost, but passionate history teacher; and Coach Fink, a lonely and intense gym teacher.
In the novel, Briarwood is putting on the play The Phantom of Thorton Hall, written by a famously reclusive alumni, about a pregnant private schooler who converses with a ghost. Lenore, who is forced to participate as detention, finds a magical and immersive new life inside the play, one that is “somehow more real than her real life.” Mr. Bishop and Coach Fink become invested in her as a strange, but needed, support system. All of them rather lonely, they each begin to find solace and companionship in one another.
Throughout the novel, Knight paints a dreamlike setting as “dignified and cozy as a village in a movie with a happy ending.” However, no one is quite happy. Although focused on our young, coming-of-age protagonist Lenore, it feels as if almost all of his characters are slowly struggling through their own bildungsroman. Clear themes emerge around dreams, memory and history—all things that revolve around an individual’s reality and how they choose to live in it.
The strength of At Briarwood emerges from the enchanting power of the characters. Knight builds a beautifully haunted atmosphere that leads both the characters and the readers into gentle contemplation. The quirky, yet authentic, cast inspires readers to become invested in even the smallest details of their lives.
With At Briarwood School for Girls, Michael Knight effortlessly weaves a world of real history and wavering reality, creating a magic entirely his own.
At Briarwood School for Girls is one of our Summer Reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.