I’m rereading The Bear and the Nightingale.
I bought it a year ago and haven’t been able to visit it again since my first read through, which is a rare thing for me.
It ought to be one of my top five favorite books, and this should be my 6th or 7th time through it, because it’s just that good. It has everything I love in a book: the writing is amazing, the characters complex, it has a strong female heroine (not a necessity, but it’s a bit more fun to fall into that point of view), it has a gorgeous story (what is it about Russian fairy tales that’s so dang interesting?) and even a magical, amazing horse.
The problem is that it hurts my feelings.
I know the author didn’t do it on purpose, and I know that it’s a personal problem more than it’s a problem with the actual book, but it’s a trope that has been picking up speed recently, or at least more recently in the genres I love to read.
Let me try to explain, before I give you examples from the book.
I’ve always loved the book Call of the Wild and hated White Fang, even though they’re both about wolf dogs and both written by Jack London, who was one of my favorite authors growing up.
The problem I had with White Fang was the same problem I had with The Jungle Book, which is the same problem I had with Princess Mononoke: the happy ending consisted of everything cool and interesting and wild either dying, or giving up, or being domesticated. The boy joined the village. The forest spirit is no more. The wolf settled down in California (California?!?!) and voila – there was the end of fun and adventure and interesting stories.
Even as a little girl (I think I first read White Fang when I was 8 or 9), I wasn’t buying it. How in the world is leaving Alaska and moving to California to be boring and raise puppies and just lay around and get fat a happy ending? Who is going to sigh in contentment with the way a book ended after reading the wolf equivalent of “And then the main character managed to snag a full time job with decent benefits. He started paying his car payment on time for long enough that his credit score increased to the point where he could apply for a low interest loan on a nice town home in a decent part of the city.”
Greek mythology is even worse. There are only two options as a woman. You can either be interesting, or you can get married. All the coolest Greek ladies either figure out a way to avoid marriage, or they get suckered into settling down. “And then the adventure ended, because she got married, and nothing of interest ever happened to her ever again for the rest of her entire life, all because she settled down. I mean, her husband and sons went on to become kings and conquer countries and do really fun things, but she probably just… I dunno. Wiped counters and straightened her hair, or did a load of laundry… or whatever it is married women do that make them happy.”
It left an impression on me as a young reader. The moral of the story was quite clear. As a female, you could either have adventures or get married, never both.
I’m not going to lie. I left left young Becky with a very strong desire to never get married. When life handed me the “married with kids” box of chocolates, it took me awhile to wrap my brain around the fact that it wasn’t the end of Becky’s story and adventures like so many books had already told me, but just another chapter in a new and interesting direction.
When I fall head over heels with a book, like I did with The Bear and the Nightingale, and then I stumble on passages like:
“She is a handsome girl,” said Pyotr. “Though a savage. She needs a husband; it would steady her.” But as he spoke, an image came to him of his wild girl wedded and bedded, sweating over an oven. The image filled him with a strange regret.”
“Again, Pyotr knew a pang. He saw her heavy with child, bowed over an oven, sitting before a loom, the grace gone…”
“He saw all at once, as Pyotr had seen, the wild thing brought indoors, busy and breathless, a woman like other women. Like Pyotr, he felt a strange sorrow…”
It seems like such a silly thing to take offense to, when it’s so prevalent in all the stories and so rarely meant in a bad way. Staying single is totally developmentally appropriate for the heroine of the story, who is a 14 (15?) year-old half-witch girl whose destiny is to rise up against Russian folkloric evil. It would be weird if she got hitched to some hairy old dude and popped out some kids. It would be incongruous and wrong for her character, bad timing for the story, and I’m not advocating it.
It would help my grumpiness if the married men in her story were also boring and fleshy and useless, but alas, only the married women become background furniture. The married dudes are still interesting and have deep thoughts. I know that’s part of the point the author is probably trying to make, seeing as how the story is set in medieval Russia, but still. When I read stuff like this, the old hurts surface, and I’m ripped out of the story so fast it’s almost impossible for me to fall back in.
It’s not just that the heroine that is upset at the prospect of marriage- it’s the fact that all the side characters all sit around and bemoan how useless she’d be if she ever did get hitched, how boring, how trapped and ruined. It’s the fact that there is not one single interesting married woman, even in the background.
Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t need every woman to be married with a bunch of kids- that’s ridiculous.
The problem is that in a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately, either there’s romance and kissing as a main theme, or there’s a strong theme of NEVER GET MARRIED OR YOU’LL BECOME A USELESS LUMP LIKE AUNT HILDA WITH HER BIG, FLESHY HIPS AND TOO MANY KIDS, AND YOU WOULDN’T WANT THAT, WOULD YOU?
Do you know what I would love to read?
I would love to read more about Great Aunt Hilda, with her big, fleshy hips.
I want Hilda to be swatting one of her too-many-kids for pulling his sister’s hair, even as she’s reaching for the giant viking axe above the door because she can hear the horns blowing the call to arms.
I want her to be pulling that axe off the door as she barks to her eldest to bank the coals of the fire, because honestly, who knows how long this particular battle is going to take, and there’s nothing worse than burnt stew for a post-war meal. I want her hollering at her kids to do it right now, or they’ll forget, and if she comes back to find out that dinner has been burned so bad that all the kids have to eat stale bread and goat cheese for the 3rd night in a row, someone’s gonna get it. I want calling back over her shoulder to mind the eldest, and bar the door, and to stay out of the jelly, and seriously, bank those coals.
And then Hilda’s out of earshot because she’s running down into the valley for all she’s worth, and the first of the barbarian horde is creeping over the ridge, and she’s letting out a primal howl as she charges down the slope with the rest of the tribe, trying to catch up to Uncle Ivan who is probably already down there in the melee. And sure, maybe she’s not in the vanguard because she’s not as fast as she used to be, and maybe nobody’s going to be composing love sonnets to her grace because she really does have big, fleshy hips, and maybe when she jumps off that last boulder her knees ache and she probably dribbles a little pee because everyone knows that after kid number 8, you’re just gonna piddle a little bit during anything strenuous like laughing too hard or axe battles defending the homestead…
But she’s there, in the background of the story, and it makes all the rest of it so much more palatable.
I don’t need every story to be about Aunt Hilda…. but if she could just be in the background, that would make me so much happier.
Anyways, there’s my rant for the day, and the reason I have trouble buying more books by amazing, incredibly talented artists like Katherine Arden and Kristin Cashore (seriously, they can really, REALLY write, even if I didn’t like the “ewww, don’t become a gross married woman” undertone.)
PS: Naomi Novik is not included in the above rants. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her books so hard. Her books have young things and old things and single things and in-love things and out-of-love things and mothers and lovers and they all have adventures. I adore you, Naomi Novik, so very much.
PPS: See, Aarene? I told you it was too long for a Facebook comment, and I really did turn it into a blog post.
PPPS: WordPress is hiding the underline button from me, so I’m sorry for all the improper formatting of mentioned book titles.