Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

In pop culture, witches represent good or evil, light or darkness, all-powerful or outcast, to name a few. They show up in fantasy, fairy tales, folk tales, the Bible, and legends, and have been around for thousands of years. In history, witches haven't fared so well, most of them women accused of witchcraft and oftentimes because they were outside the social norm. Many were victims of prejudice and injustice suffering at witch trials that brought false charges just because they were unconventional. Kelly Barnhill has two witches in her book. One appearing to be good, but with dark intentions. The other appearing to be evil, but with good intentions. One accepted, the other a pariah. The evil one (that seems good) is presenting false stories to the public as a way to control them and spread fear. "Fake news," is what we'd call it today. The propagandist stories have a power of their own; they can empower or enslave the listener or speaker. These stories can be muddied by superstitions, hate, and fear, revealing that people will lie to serve their own purposes and retain their position of power. On the flip side, these stories empower people to question the facts and find answers to their questions instead of blindly accepting the status quo.

Antain is apprenticed to his uncle, the Grand Elder of the Council of Elders. One of the Elders' jobs is to collect a baby every year to sacrifice to a witch on "The Day of Sacrifice." Their village, called the "Protectorate" or "City of Sorrows" is shrouded by clouds, sadness, and fog with a dangerous forest on one side and a bog on the other. The road is the only way in and out of town and the Elders control it and the people. When Antain goes with the Elders to collect the sacrificial baby from the selected family with his Uncle, he is disturbed by the ritual and has questions no one will answer. The baby is left in the forest and Antain doesn't know if animals or the witch got to it first. He wants to wait but is admonished for his questions. He regrets not taking action against the Elders.

A Witch comes to collect the baby as she does every year. She lives in the forest with a monster and miniature dragon. When the Witch collects the babies, she feeds them starlight and finds them adoptive homes in the Free Cities on the other side of the forest.  She accidentally feeds the woman's baby (that Antain witnessed being taken by the Elders) moonlight instead of starlight and fills the infant with magic. She can't send the baby to another family because a magical child will need a special upbringing. The witch decides to adopt the baby naming her, "Luna," and teaching her magic. This causes all sorts of problems when the toddler humorously starts changing people into bunnies and bedclothes into swans.

Between these two stories is a third point of view in italicized chapters where the narrator, who can be different people in the village, is telling a story to an unknown listener. These chapters represent oral storytelling and show how stories can grow and change as people embellish the truth. The stories are used to scare children, keep people from breaking societal norms and give the town's history and some of its rituals. Among the symbolism and themes, is a nod toward creation stories and how myths are used to explain science. The reason for volcanoes erupting and babies disappearing is related to some god or witch. This ties in with Antain and Luna's story as they both search for truth amid myths and try to find answers to norms that don't make sense - such as sacrificing babies to an unknown or vague witchy source like some pagan ritual.

Ethyne's mother is one of the people that tells stories in the italicized chapters and she is scarred from having to give up her son to the Witch many years earlier. Her stories have become embellished over the years and she doesn't know the changing nature of them. She eventually becomes lost in them and loses touch with reality. Ethyne's mother says, "I only tell true stories", but the reader knows that they might have an element of truth but are also full of lies or mythical in nature.

When a madwoman, Luna's mother, claims she knows the story of the Witch with a tiger heart and claims it to be Sister Ignacia, the Sister refutes it claiming she started all the stories and the Tiger-Heart-Witch story is fake. The story is critical of Sister Ignacia as a person causing her to not like what she hears. Today, "fake news" is flooding the media and press credibility is suffering. Fake news is false information or propaganda published and masked as truth. President Donald Trump has accused journalism institutions of creating "fake news" for criticizing him and his administration and he has restricted free access by the media to briefings, something never done in U.S. history that is troubling. Historically, despots remove critics and control the press so they can serve their own interests. However, fake news also reflects the loss of gatekeepers who check facts as people use the Internet and social media to post true or false information for different motives. It is easy to see why the media is under attack because of false information. It's not exactly Yellow Journalism, but it will be interesting to see how the media responds to the times. This 2017 Newbery winner reflects the current national debate giving it one distinguished element in a repertoire of many.

Symbolism abounds in the novel with references to lunar deities in mythology. The moon goddess worshiped by the Celts, for instance, was associated with the lunar cycles and is reflected in Luna's name. The crescent birthmark on Luna's head symbolizes not only the crescent moon but more importantly, in Latin the meaning, "to bring forth or grow and thrive." A theme or message is about reaching one's potential or falling short. The Grand Elder has hardened his heart to the point where he will sacrifice his nephew to retain his power. Even when he is stripped of his power and has the option to change his ways, he doesn't, living in misery. It reminds me of the Chronicles of Narnia where certain characters fall short of their potential to live a happy life. It is the choices people make that define who they are in life.

Luna's magic is creative as a child, so much so, that the Witch, Xan, binds her magic so it cannot be used until her 13th birthday. A consequence of this binding is that Luna cannot hear or talk about magic. Whenever anyone brings it up she zones out like she's having a seizure. Her memory loss is a theme that is prevalent in many of the characters. Xan has lived for five hundred years and has chosen to not remember her past suffering; yet, if she had remembered it, then she would have looked into why the villagers were leaving babies in the forest. Sister Ignacia blocked her suffering and chose to ignore it making her feast on other people's grief. Xan realizes that to block out memory means to not learn from the past, which can lead to people blindly following ways that might be harmful.

The bad Witch, Sister Ignatia, suppressed her memories resulting in her becoming not only a symbol of sorrow but one who preys on others sorrow, eating it in a figurative way. She's called, "The Sorrow Eater." At the end, Luna sees the loss that Sister Ignacia suffered and how she "...walled off her heart, again and again, making it smooth and bright and unfeeling." Luna gains an understanding of Sister Ignacia's choices and thinks of how awful it is to be cut off from memories. Luna uses magic to make Sister Ignacia remember what it is like to love. Because Sister Ignacia does not address her grief, it stunts her from living a full life at her potential. Xan, along with Glerk, realizes that it is important for her to remember the past even if it makes her sad. Xan chooses to not wall off her heart like Sister Ignacia. Truth is masked by many characters either suppressing memories or lying. There are many different lies from Fyrian, the miniature dragon, pretending he is large, to Xan and Luna not talking about Xan's deteriorating health, to Sister Ignacia pretending she is doing the right thing for the townspeople. All of them have different motives and some lies are delusional while others are malicious.

The women are empowered in this story making good and bad choices. The bad Witch has an all-female military. They make choices at the end that support one of their own, Ethyne, who left the order to move into civilian life again. Ethyne, becomes a force in the story choosing her own destiny and fighting against the societal norms to do what is right. Antain, her husband, decides to fight against it as well, but he goes through much suffering before reaching this decision. Luna's mother is a victim of the system but even she breaks free as symbolized in her paper birds that come alive and magically do things for her. The characters and townspeople must learn to hope in order to move forward in life and find happiness despite their oppressive governmental leadership. Ethyne and Antain also realize that blind allegiance is not a good thing. Sometimes a person must take a stand against existing norms.

Many characters grieve. Luna's mother goes insane when her daughter is taken from her as an infant. She seems to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Xan must deal with losing her magic to Luna and eventually her life. The dragon is grieving the loss of his mother. The plot explores what it is like to be an orphan and adopted; grieving the loss of biological parents. The babies sacrificed each year that Xan has found homes for are adopted and described as having more light than other people. They have been fed starlight, a symbol of love. Later Luna comes to terms with learning about her biological mother and knowing the love of her adopted mother, Xan. When Luna starts to draw, she starts to wonder about who her biological parents might be. The instances of light and darkness symbolizing love and hate in characters and the village abounds throughout the pages. Light bends toward Luna and other orphans. The city is ironically called, "the Protectorate," because the villagers think the government protects them, but it is shrouded in fog, sorrow, and darkness as they can't see the oppressive circumstances of their lives. The other cities are called, "the Free Cities," in contrast.

Birds also symbolize flight from entrapment, predators, and freedom. The paper birds struck me as a metaphor for writing and loneliness. Like the "Lady of Shalott," the madwoman is cursed to remain in a tower day after day trying to write and communicate with the world outside. The paper birds cut skin. They hurt. They are beautiful. They take flight. They prey. The paper birds cut Antain and scarred him just like the incident he witnessed so many years before. His wounds from the paper birds fester just like his psychological wound of not acting when the Elders' took away the madwoman's child (Luna's mom) on The Day of Sacrifice. He says his scars always hurt, " [the] dull ache of something lost." When he does get the chance to act again, he does not miss the chance. The madwoman becomes free when she flies away on her paper birds. Birds of prey are symbolized in the form of falcons and hawks. Interestingly, at the end, Xan transforms into a sparrow which is known to be eaten by birds of prey. She will be consumed by Luna's magic and Antain's revenge. When the madwoman sends a paper bird that is a falcon the words on it say, "Don't forget" and the other side says, "I mean it." Remembering the past is woven through the entire plot.

The madwoman in the tower symbolizes the solitude of writing. She can't remember names for they had "flown away, like a bird." She only thinks of paper. The madwoman's thoughts could equate to a writer bogged down with cranking out 100,000 plus words for a book: "She dreamed of a paper moon hovering over paper cities and paper forests and paper people. A world of paper. A universe of paper. She dreamed of oceans of ink and forests of quills and an endless bog of words. She dreamed of all of it in abundance." The madwoman tries to send Antain a paper bird in the form of a hawk that says her daughter is alive, but it falls at his feet with a broken wing. The lame paper bird is crushed under Antain's foot. He cannot see that those in charge are preying on the populace of the Protectorate, he's ashamed of his past inaction, and he is angry at being attacked by the paper birds.

The story deals with death of a grandparent and the author's writing is beautiful and lyrical. The creation story surrounds the bog which first came into existence with Glerk the monster emerging from it. Glerk loves poetry. He sings it. He repeats lines and stanzas adding to the cadence and rhythm of the sentences. Ancient Sumarian texts use poetry in the form of hymns and it was also a way to remember oral history. Again, this is just one of many elements that make this book distinguished. The author gives a nod toward history while creating her own unique style. I've read several books this year examining changing narratives. "The Underground Railroad," examines changing narratives in history and how to break out of oppression, while "The Sellout" looks at narratives and reveals that they haven't changed, but needs to through self-awareness. This one looks at the narrative and tells readers to not take it at face value and blindly follow the status quo, but question what is true or false.

5 Smileys

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