Binding Traditions

A review of Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

A great deal of fantasy is focused on the hero’s narrative, masculine figures in a masculine, patriarchal society. Erin Bow creates a female dominated society. Women have powers that males don’t – the power to bind spirits with string. In a place that is filled with the dead, shadowy globs of darkness who consume the living when given the chance, men aren’t safe. They don’t have the skills or the strength to protect themselves, so they leave the society of the women and head to safer areas. The women in this novel are figures of power, complex and diverse, but all possessing an inner strength that centralises them in the narrative. Unlike a lot of fantasy narratives that try to construct women as vulnerable, as damsels in distress who need rescue, these women are the figures of power in their society.

Instead of using the medieval world as an archetype of fantasy to modify for her story as occurs often in high fantasy, Bow creates a distinctly non-European society. Her society is one that is unique, with highly developed rituals that are distinct from the norms of fantasy. This society binds the dead in trees, has girls discover their possible careers at adulthood, organises women into households that are formed based on their career talents rather than their biological relationships (though these sometimes occur as well), doesn’t have marriage and in fact views monogamous pairings as unordinary and things that animals do rather than people, and, a society that is a matriarchy. The world she creates is whole and rich and this difference from the expected tropes of fantasy allows her to distinguish her world and create characters and cultural situations that would not often be found in medieval-like fantasy societies.

Cover photo of Erin Bow's Sorrow's Knot courtesy of Scholastic Canada http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/sorrows-knot

Cover photo of Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot courtesy of Scholastic Canada http://www.scholastic.ca/books/view/sorrows-knot

When discussing feminist fantasy, I have often heard male authors claim that they have to write women as weak because it is ‘historically accurate’ or ‘accurate for that society’, which is ridiculous since these stories are often not set in real historical periods, but rather other worlds. Bow is able to create a society that right away tells the reader: don’t expect this novel to be disempowering to women. She gets away from all of the baggage associated with the worlds fantasy authors often replicate by expressing this society’s difference.

However, her society is not a feminist utopia. It is set with problems that would face any society – issues of social taboos, the strength of traditions that alienate people who behave in non-traditional ways, and the loss of history. This society has classic human issues embedded in it like the battle between youth and the aged, acts of defiance and punishment, the desire to change social patterns, issues of power and the dangers of too much power, and questions about how the local relates to the wider world.

Carried on from the time of the mytho-historical figure Mad Spider, who first powerfully bound the dead, and first fought the most powerful form the dead can have, White Hands, the art of binding bodies and creating binding wards has been central to Westmost’s society. The village is surrounded by wards to keep out the dead, powerful knots of string that are created by the binders, specialists in the art of magical knot-making. Binders also bind the dead. Whenever anyone dies in Westmost, the binder takes them out of the village and ties them up at the top of trees, asking for the wind to take them away and therefore not have them visit the village with hungry mouths of shadow.

Willow, the most powerful binder since Mad Spider, raises her daughter, Otter, to be the next binder, recognising the same skill in the girl. But, when Willow’s mentor, who has been like a mother figure to her, dies, Willow begins to doubt the whole tradition of binding the dead and worries about the implications of this practice. She is unable to let go of her mentor and calls her back instead of wishing her to the winds. Willow sees that her power is too strong and that binding is a problem… and kicks her daughter out, telling her that she shouldn’t be a binder. Otter feels lost and as though her entire destiny and her family itself has been taken from her.

Skills in this society are kept secrets, only taught by those who have been chosen to be part of a specific career, which means that Otter, by being kicked out of the binder’s tradition, can’t discover this from others. Her friend Kestrel is receiving training as a ranger, and Cricket, one of the few males who decides to stay in the village, is learning to become a storyteller even though males are generally not taught skills, so Otter feels surrounded by those with clear paths while she has none.

Otter begins to notice something about the wards. They seem hungry like the dead. She realises that in keeping the dead out… they are also trapping the living within. The knots seem to pull at people. But, around her mother, all of the knots seem to be loosening, unbinding, and, like Mad Spider, Willow is also being called mad. When the village is attacked by the dead, who manage to get around the wards, Willow, rather than reinforcing the wards, goes out to meet her former mentor, who has become a White Hand. She gets touched by the White Hand, and, unlike other types of the dead who cause bodily harm, White Hands cause psychological harm – they replicate themselves in the body of human begins and eventually take over, dissolving individuality.

Otter is now the only choice for her society as a binder. She only has basic knowledge, but has inherent skills that could help her. Her mother tries to train her to take on the position in her last few days of life, all the while turning into something different. Willow begins to hunger, and Cricket discovers that she is appeased in small ways by the telling of tales. He tells her constant stories to try to help her hold on to her humanity, and then he tells her the one story that is a secret of the storyteller’s craft, a story that is forbidden to be revealed. He tells her that when Mad Spider bound her own mother, she bound her too tightly and Willow mentions that from that time forward, there has been something wrong with the binding of the dead.

Cricket is cast out of his society by the elders for telling secrets to others that are outside of his craft. When Kestrel and Otter follow him because they recognise that more knowledge and a greater breadth of knowledge from all of the other crafts could be helpful, they find him already preyed upon by the dead. The two young women continue on Cricket’s chosen path toward the great city that Mad Spider’s mythical roots began in, seeking to discover the depth of secrets and the reason why things seem wrong with the wards and with binding in general.

Questioning their place in their society now that taboos have led to Cricket’s death, the two begin to challenge all of the assumptions their society has, re-mapping their own history and trying to discover what has been lost to time and the origins of behaviours that their society has taken for granted as the only way to do things. This is a novel about he pushing of the bonds of society, the restrictive net that is cast around social groups, controlling and consuming them. It is only by violating traditions, by questioning them and refusing to follow the rules, that real, powerful change can be made.

 

“Plain Kate” Reading Questions

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Some Book Club Discussion Questions for Erin Bow’s “Plain Kate

When Plain Kate was first with the Roamers, she had to quickly learn their ways. What did you find unique or interesting about their ways?

The characters in this book often blame witches for their misfortune. How does this relate to our world – who do people blame for misfortune?

How does fear effect people in this world?

How are hair and blood used for magic in this novel? Why are they significant? Why use hair and blood instead of other materials?

Plain Kate has a cat who is able to speak and this starts to make him human-like. Why do you think the gift of speech changes his cat-like behaviour?

If you could have a speaking animal, which one would it be and why?

Rejected by Magic

A Review of Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (Scholastic Inc., 2012)

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

By Derek Newman-Stille

In a world where magic is real and witches are hunted, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate explores society’s trend of scapegoating people who are different, making villains out of people who don’t fit the ideas of normal behaviour. Plain Kate is a woman whose appearance is plain, but who has two different coloured eyes, marking her as a social target. She is made even more of a target because she is clever and talented. Others can’t accept that her skills are natural or due to incredible effort on her part, they automatically attribute her skills to witchcraft and persecute her, driving her out of her home and away from her community.

In her desire to find a place for herself, and escape from the hate around her, Plain Kate makes a deal with a witch who has come to town: she trades her own shadow for a way to survive on her own… and in the process unintentionally expresses her secret wish for a companion. Her cat is suddenly gifted with the ability to speak and becomes something in-between human and cat as Plain Kate becomes something between living and dead, a woman without a shadow who feels herself fading away.

Kate takes on the name “Plain Kate”, trying to mark herself as plain in appearance, not noticeable and easily missed. Giftedness is dangerous in her community, so Plain Kate finds other social outcasts, outsiders and those who have been expelled from their societies. Plain Kate finds a group of people called Roamers, other people who are persecuted who live on the fringes. She learns their customs and finds a new place for herself, a family.

Plain Kate is not left alone with her new community, she is followed by a sleeping sickness, a monster in the fog, and a witch bent of vengeance for his sister’s death.  Plain Kate’s shadow has been shared with a rusalka, a figure from myth: a drowned woman who haunts the edges of life. Kate’s compassion compels her to sacrifice herself for the very community that had rejected and outcast her.

Plain Kate is a novel steeped in magic, where the mysteries flow off of the page and into your imagination.

To find out more about Erin Bow, you can explore her website at http://www.erinbow.com/ . To find out more about Plain Kate, you can check out Scholastic’s website at http://www.scholastic.ca/titles/plainkate/