On Her Behalf by Rachel Zhao

Dear Matilda,

        You are the nicer version of Stephen King's Carrie, and my 6-year-old self was enthralled. I had never met anyone else who loved books as much as I did, who believed in possibilities beyond their world, housed in the bound pages. I felt a kinship with you, right there in the bunk bed I shared with my sister. We were both booklovers by necessity, you with your absent parents and me, with two immigrant parents with full time jobs. Nor had I ever met any girl with so much power. All the comic book superheroes were boys. Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, even three fourths of the Boxcar Children were boys. They were the ones who found the stolen money and caught the criminals. They were the celebrated heroes of children's literature. Until I met you.

        At first, I didn't realize how dark your demons were, with emotionally negligent parents and a tyrannical, abusive principal, but you were my first taste of power and rebellion.

        It wasn't just your telekinesis that drew me in; although I will admit that after reading your book, I spent two weeks trying to pick up a jug of water with my eyes. It was the utter ruthlessness with which you executed your plans. I had never seen or experienced such certainty in any truth or cause. In my 6-year-old mind, the adults were always right. They were faceless giants that somehow knew what was best. But you had this unbelievable faith in your own right and wrong, in exacting justice on a continued injustice. You, a small, plucky, 4-year-old girl, defeated the enormous, obnoxious Principal Trunchbull. You were David to Crunchem Hall's Goliath. You were my first superhero.

Dear Hermione,

        There you were, in all of your bushy haired, buck-toothed glory, asking if anyone had seen Neville's toad in a train compartment of the Hogwarts Express. That's when I knew I had found my literary soulmate. I was completely enamoured from the first encounter on the train, where you helped a boy you barely knew find his pet, told Ron off for his pathetic attempt at a spell and swept out the door, leaving the worst impression on Harry and Ron but the best one on me. I have dressed up as you for the past five Halloweens, and I don't intend to stop.

        You, Hermione, became the standard to which I write my female characters. You aren't just the smart, nerdy girl. You are brave and ambitious. You are not the love interest of the main character. You earned the moniker, "the brightest witch of your age," when you were 15, and you never stopped trying to prove yourself. You've faced war and devastation. You saved a world that deemed you as "other" because your parents weren't magical. You bear the scars of a second class citizen with pride that you survived.

        I idolized you without seeing the complexity of your character. The "you" that existed in my head when I was 11 does not make for a good person. Or a good character to write. I learned this the hard way after getting my first short story back in seventh grade with a "D" scribbled in red at the top and a note that read "character not fully developed." Because you are more than just the a foil to Harry, you're also incredibly arrogant. You can never admit that you're wrong or that you're not the best at something. It's probably one of the things that attracted me to you in the first place, but until now, I've chosen to ignore that about you because it was simple to define good and bad as perfect and not. I've set you to a standard but you taught me how to write a character truthfully, as a human being.

Dear Ms. Eyre,

        I have a bone to pick with you. You'll notice that I address you in this letter by your maiden surname. I had faith in you, Jane. You were ahead of your time. You possessed a sense of self worth and dignity that went beyond just being someone's wife. You left your aunt's emotionally abusive home and gained financial independence. You are the star of my favorite piece of 19th-century British, romantic literature, and that means that yes, I do like your story more than Pride and Prejudice. You were not afraid of being plain. You weren't always witty and courageous. Sometimes you were awkward and would overreact and say the wrong things. But you had a fierce sense of integrity, one that I was sure you would hold onto as you drifted from the dreariness of the Lowood School to Thornfield Hall.

        But you also become victim to the social norms of your writer's time. Because you married him, Jane! I'm aware that I'm speaking ill of debatably one of the most desirable men in literature, but that still does not change the fact that he locked up his mentally ill wife in the attic and wasn't going to tell you until you two were well and married. You left him, Jane, because you could not bear the shame of being his mistress, but then you went back to him and I felt the helplessness of being a reader as you returned to the smouldering cinders of Thornfield Hall. You are smart and driven and flawed and, in my eyes, you made a mistake that I, as a reader, will have to live with. Because I can't make your choices for you.

        I read your story in the summer before my junior year, and now I'm in college. You've always been so sure of the choices that you've made and I'm not sure I will be able to say the same. I'm not sure I would be able to be as self assured as you are. I'm not sure what I would do if someone thought of my choices the way I think of yours. But you were happy in the end. You ended your story with three paragraphs of exposition about how everyone lived happily ever after. I suppose I can only hope for something close, and thank you for all that you've taught me.

With great admiration,
Rachel Zhao