Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Mad Wolf's Daughter by Diane Magras

This Scottish medieval setting with castles, knights, and bandits is a bullseye for my tastes. A slow-paced story, even if it is good, can be like walking in deep sand for me. My natural pace is to clip along like a sail boat over white-capped water. Fantasy is my go-to, not realistic fiction. A strong female character who is impulsive, determined, and athletic as Drest is in this story grabs my attention. There are some fantastical parts, but most of "The Mad Wolf's Daughter" stays grounded as a knight tale with a monarchy under threat. The plot builds tension that rewards the reader with some twists that had me turning around and rereading the book. At 260 pages this was easy. 

Twelve-year-old Drest is a strong "lass" and not your typical "maiden." Her five brothers and dad, legendary warriors, taught her to wield a sword and live by an honorable code. They also taught her to intimidate with name-calling such as "maggot-headed squid" or "grub-spotted barnacle". Name-calling doesn't work most of the time but does spice the story with humor. The men in Drest's family have a war-band and are captured by the Knights of Faintree in a battle that only she escapes. A wounded knight, Emerick, is left behind becoming her bargaining chip to free her family from a public hanging in five days. Drest sets off to save them and has adventures along the way discovering who she is and what she wants to be in life. She's tough. She's naïve. She's determined. 

Drest's strengths and shortcomings show a girl that is afraid and impulsive but overcomes it with courage, loyalty, and a strong moral compass. Emerick counters her impulsivity with negotiation making her think about her actions. He stresses that words are a great weapon, if not greater than a sword. Initially, Drest uses her sword to do the talking almost killing another boy and rushing at a man who could have wounded her with a hidden dagger. In both cases she was defending someone who was being treated unjustly and while her strong sense of justice when someone is being wronged is admirable, Emerick tries to drop a pebble in her constantly moving body that she doesn't need to plunge blade-first into every melee she stumbles across. Words have power too, he stresses. She uses words with her enemies later and grows to understand that while her brothers and fathers are "bloodthirsty warriors" she cannot kill another person. As her friend Tig claims, she is a warrior with a "good heart." Drest's shortcomings create a sympathetic versus judgmental character that makes her more authentic for me.

Minor characters are well-crafted not drifting from the overall story arc. The brothers are developed with Drest talking to them in her imagination. She envisions what they would say in different situations that comforts and helps her make decisions while maintaining a swift pacing. Jupp is not a one-dimensional villain. Emerick turns from enemy to friend. Tig is a funny sidekick that worships Drest for her kindness as well as her fighting skills. He has a pet raven, a symbol of Celtic goddesses and witches in myths. He says he's a witch although no special powers appear. Both Drest and Tig are trying to find their identity as they move from adolescence into adulthood.

The witch, Merewin, says that Drest saving her is "extraordinary"; however, we never find out why. Merewin is mysterious, magical, and unpredictable like a goddess from a Celtic myth. The yellow dust she has as a trap in her hut is not explained but it hurts Drest. Does the dust show Merewin as a witch with magical powers? Does it allow her to follow Drest? GPS dust? Just kidding. Then a stag shows up which is a Celtic symbol representing freedom or the pursuit of wisdom, etc. Stags were hunted and a common motif in medieval Scotland. The stag appearance foreshadows Merewin who is currently being hunted and marginalized by society or in this case used as a scapegoat for a death in the village since she is a healer. The name Merewin is close to King Arthur's advisor, Merlin. I kept trying to connect it with King Arthur but it seemed to be presenting an opposite advisor than in that story. Is she Drest's relative? My guess is she knows something about Drest's mother who is absent and no explanation given as to what happened to her. Perhaps a sequel will address? Merewin tries to give Drest advice but realizes Drest doesn't need it. She does look after her basic needs on her quest and gives warnings (that Drest ignores).

Merewin is connected more with the history of witchcraft in cultures and how women healers were unfairly blamed for village deaths. This feminist focus gives the story its own shape keeping it from drifting into myths and focused on the oral tradition of legends. Drest's adventures expose her to what defines her family's legend throughout the region. Some is good, bad, and exaggerated. Drest is creating her own legend with the reader as well as the community. She inspires with her sense of justice and teaches what it means to be brave and kind in bad situations. Even in the worst of circumstances she doesn't give up or succumb to fears. 

The overall story arc is well done. William Kenower writes in his book "Fearless Writing" about three narrative arcs: physical arc, emotional arc, and intentional arc. The physical arc can be a story that follows a formula of some sort. This story is the hero's journey: a girl embarks on a quest, has adventures and trials, is betrayed, fights for her life, and is changed by the journey. The emotional arc looks at characters motivations. Drest is motivated to rescue her family and then others as the journey proceeds. She thinks that she is a great warrior like her brothers but discovers she isn't "bloodthirsty". She realizes that she  doesn't have to embrace her family's legend but can make her own. The intentional arc is the reason behind telling the story. This probably has many answers but the one that stuck with me was Drest as a representation that girls can be strong and true to themselves as they find their own way in the world.

The repetition and emphasis on storytelling as a way of orally preserving history presses throughout Drest's tale. Tig tells stories about Drest the warrior maiden who rescues people. He repeats certain phrases and the author attempts to mimic some oral traditions. Tig is creating his own story on his quest and develops in confidence on the journey. Drest's dad and brothers tell stories of their battles around the camp fire but leave out the negative parts of the story. When Drest hears alternative tales of her quest it makes her question her brother and father's choices. She questions their choices and forces them to think about some of their actions. Drest asks Jupp his story. At the end, her Dad says they trained her better than he thought. She says, "Maybe you did, or maybe it was just me." She's writing her own story.

By continually pointing out this rich tradition of storytelling the author implies that she is carrying on the craft by sharing a story from her own imagination. She also acknowledges through the characters that legends don't always reflect the truth. They might try to represent history but oftentimes are partial truths. A listener or reader needs to think critically of legends. The best part of storytelling for me is the sharing of a story where I can enter into a character and see some truth about my life or better understand the world while having fun in an imaginary setting. I can chew on that kind of story.

5 Smileys

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