This year is about not forgetting writers who really need to be seen. Some of those writers are still very much among us. The shadows start even when women do their best work. Jennifer Stevenson writes about one such writer. I’m very, very lucky and know both these writers, through Book View Cafe. This means that I can point out an obvious place to check if you want to find out what Jennifer’s talking about or explore Jennifer’s own work.
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel has been writing science fiction and fantasy for a long time. Her Nuala novels are among the earliest science fiction romances, delicately romantic compared with the lushly emotional stuff of genre romance, but romances all the same. Her short fantasy stories each visit a single constellation of emotions surrounding a speculative idea, almost surgically.
What I’d like to talk about, though, is a set of books I wish desperately had been around when I was eleven years old. The series is commonly referred to after its first volume, Night Calls.
Night Calls, Kindred Rites, and Spiral Path follow the adventures of Alfreda Eldonsdottir Sorensson, eleven years old when we first meet her in the Michigan Territory of colonial America. Her parents are land-rich and cash-poor pioneers whose cash crop is fur; they trap responsibly and maintain a positive relationship with Native American tribes in the area. In their tiny village of mostly-Norwegian-descended pioneers, everyone makes what they need or barters for what they can’t make. Persons with extraordinary skills are more valuable than things or money. They get around.
Allie’s family are practitioners, that is, gifted with extra-sensory talents that are partly-formally trained but mostly self-trained. Their practice is like everything else they do, built for work, developed under pressure, expedient rather than elegant, and definitely lacking a magickal pedigree. Bits of what we would now call ceremonial magic are mixed with hedgewitchery and a massive amount of pioneer and Native American woodcraft. They do what it takes to get ’er done and never worry about whether they’re qualified. What works, works.
The woodcraft is what won me over. My own family’s form of hedgewitchery is founded in German nature-lore, so I was enchanted with Allie’s family tradition of taking the kids out, one at a time as they were deemed sufficiently learned in woodcraft, and leaving them for a space in the wilderness to build shelter, find water, and feed themselves. In the second novel this skill set comes mightily in handy when Allie, fleeing bad guys in the dead of winter through the wilderness, holes up for days in a hidden shelter she builds out of boughs and snow. Every bit of magic is grounded, sometimes literally, in the wilderness surrounding Allie. From the bedrock up to the smallest bird, nature interpenetrates Allie’s magical education. You smell the wet bark, the decaying leaves, the snow—my god the snow, all the books so far take place in deep winter. You feel the sap rising in the tree trunks and hear the chickadee in the darkest woods.
Like any pioneer with extraordinary skills, Allie is drafted early into service to her community. At eleven she is apprenticed to a cousin who lives quite far away and serves other wilderness communities as midwife, doctor, psychiatrist, exorcist, and, well, whatever else is required.
These novels expand ever-outward, full of episodes and references that seem random until, sometimes late in the series, they resolve into life lessons, valuable alliances, mini-apprenticeships that empower Allie and expand the reach of her responsibilities.
This cycle of ever-increasing responsibility, knowledge, understanding, skill, responsibility, friendship with the mere human and alliances with others, and yet more responsibility help protect Allie’s stories from devolving into the sort of high fantasy that never did me any good as a child. Those fantasies, so often about boys, bestowed rewards—wealth, power, and universal adulation—upon the young heroes until they swam in a sea of self-importance. At eleven, the girlchild I was had begun to be aware that these rewards were not meant for me. What seemed real to me at the time was the looming avalanche of responsibility that the world couldn’t wait to dump in my lap.
Like the rest of her pioneer family, Allie copes. In her world, nobody over the age of four just cries, waiting for rescue. Allie is confronted by medical emergencies, monsters, and disasters that would take those high-fantasy boy-children two weeks and an army of special friends to handle. Allie assumes she’ll have to do this herself, right now, with whatever tools she can find and allies she can make. And most of the time the adults around her merely shrug and say, Yeah, that works. There’s little to none of the congratulatory ceremony one finds in high fantasy when a boy magician saves the day. Such overpraise seems somehow to diminish that boy’s heroism, while the understated respect Allie wins from her family and from mightier powers has the potency of a journeyman’s nod to an apprentice.
The saddest thing about these books is that they were written thirty years too late to save my eleven-year-old sanity. (In this they resemble Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, which also fill my inner child with might-have-been longing.)
The happiest thing about these books is that there will be more. Rumor has it that Kimbriel is at work on more Allie stories.