Small Press Reviews: Fort Unicorn and the Duchess of Knothing by Andrea Nelson

Review by Sean Malone, Orange Hat Publishing | Ten16 Press

TEN16 Press, a division of Orange Hat Publishing, housing fiction, non-fiction, YA and poetry books.

The struggle of parents to support their children in all circumstances is an experience shared by many. Fort Unicorn and the Duchess of Knothing chronicles this experience and a great deal more through the perspective of the author. The journey Nelson creates for the reader is a profound one, intensely intimate, full of detail and breadth, and touched with emotion on every page.

It is appropriate to comment on the meaning of the title. Fort Unicorn refers to the dwelling created by its inhabitant: the author’s daughter, Shyloh, the Duchess of Knothing. In reality, this was the small corner of a homeless encampment eked out by Shyloh in San Diego in July of 2019. The wordplay (think knot in terms of crafting knots) and whimsy of both titles are an immediate attestation of the free and playful spirit of Shyloh. However, by the time the narrative reaches this point, Shyloh has long been battling various inner demons and addictions with various drugs.

The readers are brought to this eventual moment with the full stories and context of both Shyloh and her mother, Andrea. The story is framed from Andrea’s perspective, and we learn that she, too, grappled with similar challenges while growing up. Fortunately, she was able to establish a definitive and clean break from such damaging habits and found more wholesome outlets to pursue and immerse herself in. As her life progresses, we observe the development of her professional boxing career, and as a coach and athletic trainer.

Andrea’s life is fully shared from the beginning of her story: its circumstances and locales, its relationships, and her professional development. As readers, we benefit from this intimate look in understanding Andrea’s hopes for Shyloh’s life. We bear witness to a mother’s moments of pain and disappointment, waxing hopes, and occasional raw exasperation from the persistent and repeating cycles that engulf Shyloh. The book is incredibly rich with its variety of the correspondence between mother and daughter, including many photographs, a history of Shyloh’s blog that she kept, letters sent between the two, and pictures of different crafts or art made by Shyloh. This narrative is kept tightly organized with timestamps of each chapter, keeping the reader fully aware of the passage of time, progress and regressions, and the unfolding of the wider story. It is a narrative that encourages the reader to form their own internal questions and contemplation alongside Andrea’s own monologue and shared thoughts. 

In summary, this is an emotionally taxing and candid memoir that surely will speak to all readers. Contained in this well-written and captivating narrative is heartbreak, acceptance, and above all, a beautiful tribute to the great challenges of being a parent for a child that at times is completely unwilling or unable to accept help. Yet, Nelson expounds on the wisdom she was able to obtain and beauty she observed from this journey, and it is a valued experience for readers to join her on.

About the Book

Fort Unicorn & The Dutchess of Knothing

This memoir is at once spare, raw, heartbreaking and lovely. The stories are unique, yet familiar, for anyone impacted by substance use disorder which, at this point, is all of us. Fort Unicorn is a gift to the world, because it reminds us of the humanity in every person struggling with addiction.”

—Nora Hertel, journalist and the founder of The Optimist, a digital news startup in Minnesota 

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Article originally Published in the February / March 2023 Issue: Connection.

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