Sunday, November 21, 2010

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Kate's father is a woodcarver, and her mother died in the birthing of her. With only her father to raise her, He placed a carving knife in her hand almost as soon as she could walk. She started with whittling, but by the time she was older, her skill at carving was immense. And since her people were superstitious about carving already, believing there was a magic in how things grew to shape from mere wood, they considered Kate halfway to a witch.

The town she was born into was periodically subject to disease, and when it came back, it caught Kate's father in its grasp. She and her father fought it as long as possible, but he died of it, leaving Kate alone. The villagers, still thinking her a witch, threw her out of her home, forcing her to live in her father's storefront, where she took the things that were left to her and made a life for herself with her carving, her old home being given to the new carpenter.

The villagers may have gone to him for the everyday carving, but Kate's talents can't be denied. She carves a marker for her father's grave, saves three kittens from death and starvation, and ends up with one staying with her-not the black cat or the white cat, but the gray. Soon, a man all over white named Linay comes to the village, selling charms and magic. Charms for love, for protection from the mists that come off the river and bring monsters, and all other sorts of charms.

Kate speaks with him but finds him strange and sly. He brings the villagers a huge haul of fish, but only Kate's stay around. All the others are simply gone the next morning. And when a strange gray mist creeps into town off the river, sending villagers into a sleep from which they cannot and do not awaken, the villagers look for someone to blame and settle on none other than Kate, who they already think a witch with her strange eyes and ability with a carving knife. Forced to flee, Kate sells her shadow to Linay and takes shelter with the wandering people, the Roamers. And in exchange for her shadow, he enables her to flee and gifts her with her heart's wish and the means to leave her old life behind and perhaps find a new one. In addition, her cat, Taggle, can now speak and think like a human, but still remains a cat.

Starting over with the Roamers means having to gain their acceptance to travel with them, both from the men and the women, like Mother Daj. Let stay with them because of her carving ability and because the Roamers, too, are often accused of witchcraft. Here, Kate makes a friend, Drina, who knows a bit of magic herself.

But before long, Kate realizes that something is wrong. More and more people are succumbing to the witch-sickness brought on by the fog, and she fears that Linay, and her own shadow that she gave up to him, may have something to do with the sickness. Cast out by the Roamers for her missing Shadow, she must find Linay and regain her shadow and figure out what he is doing to make people sick and why. But can a single girl on her own defeat such dark magic? And what connection does her friend Drina have to Linay and to Drina's dead mother?

This book I enjoyed, but it had a strange feel to it, as Kate constantly spends time with people she is outcast from. From the villagers of her home, who basically ignore her because of her talent, to the Roamers who she may join but will never be a part of, and Linay, doubly outcasr for his strange looks and use of magic. Kate seems a girl perpetually adrift on some strange and silent shore, never to have a true home or a place to rest where her talents are useful and valued. It actually made me feel alone and strangely lonely when reading it- it wasn't until the end of the book that Kate finally found a place where she could be herself.

The book itself is perhaps a little disturbing. The land harks back to Russia and its folktales, being dark and dreary through most of the book, and most of the characters have Russian names, Kate's being Katerina Svetlana, and her father being Piotr, and the Roamers, of course are the Romany, better known as the Gypsies. The book doesn't show much of Kate's growth as a person- she remains much the same throughout the book in character. Where she does grow is in self-knowledge and maturity. This is not a happy book and the cover art, which shows Kate walking over rooftops with her cat, Taggle, comes late in the book and is not nearly so carefree as the art suggests. It actually happens in the midst of a crisis.

The ending of the book is one many readers will find rather bittersweet, and reflects what Kate has come to know about herself during the journey, but remains true to her character at the start. It's almost completely unrelentingly grim. Kate never seems to know some kindness that isn't ultimately snatched away from her, and there's no romantic subplot in the book at all. But the words and imagery are wonderful and almost poetic. It's the kind of book that leaves a mark on your mind and your soul. I just wish that the ending had been slightly happier, but then that would have betrayed the Russian Fairytale feel of the text. Highly recommended, but not your usual sort of YA book.

No comments: