November 21, 2010
Plain Kate by Erin Bow
2010 Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
(from the author's website)
In addition to his good looks, charm, wit, loyalty, love of animals and all-around good nature, my husband is as passionate about reading as I am. He reads a lot more nonfiction (especially history & biographies) than I do, but he still enjoys a good novel and often reads what I recommend. We've spent many an evening sitting at the dinner table, chatting about our current reads. This past week, we've been discussing a teen novel that was written by the daughter of a friend of ours. We were first introduced to Erin Bow's beautiful writing in Mongoose Diaries (reviewed here almost exactly a year ago!), but Plain Kate is her first novel, and we were both quite eager to get our hands on it. Since I was in the middle of a book club read, I told Rod to go ahead and read Plain Kate before me. He read it and loved it. As we were chatting, he said he'd like to write the review, so without any further babbling from me, here's Rod's review of Plain Kate:
Plain Kate is a magical book about a magical girl in a magical land. Aimed at young adults, it is at once a quest novel, a coming-of-age story, and a fairy tale in the classic tradition. It is the story of a young girl who must overcome hardship and confront danger to find her way in a world that abounds in enchantment, both good and evil.
The title is ironic, for we soon see that there is nothing at all plain about Kate. She is beautiful, pure of heart and strong of mind, honest and determined. Other characters, older and wiser than Kate herself, understand that there is something very special about her:
Take this one,” said Daj, pointing an elbow at Kate while she turned the chicken over. “This is Kate Carver, who will go our way a while.”
"Plain Kate,” corrected Plain Kate.
“Hmph, so you said.” Daj eyed her. “As you’d have it, kit.”
Almost by definition, the characters in a quest novel must grow, and Kate is no exception. She begins the novel as a precocious young girl with an uncanny talent for woodcarving, but is forced by tragedy and by malevolent circumstance to grow up quickly. Suddenly bereft of her father, her childhood is lost, but she discovers her true strength as she matures; in the end, she is even stronger and more beautiful than perhaps she would have been absent the tragedies that helped shape her. She is tempered like steel, made stronger by first being weakened.
Taggle is Kate’s friend and travel companion, a wryly sarcastic, hedonistic cat that provides a welcome touch of humor in what is sometimes a bleak story. (And the story is often bleak, there’s no getting around it; the world—and especially Kate’s world—can be a very bleak place indeed. But we know that for joy to prevail there must be bleakness over which it can triumph.)
Like Kate, Taggle also grows. In a fairy-tale world in which charms have power and the dead can kill and animals can speak, a self-centered cat becomes, literally, the voice of reason. Ultimately Taggle is willing to sacrifice himself for one whom he has come to love:
Taggle looked up at her, his amber eyes deep as the loneliness Kate had felt before he became her friend. “The traditional thing,” he said slowly, “involves the river and a sack.”
Erin Bow is a poet, and a fine one. And, as poets do, she revels in language—her descriptions of ordinary things make them seem extraordinary:
Kate found herself fixed on the texture of Daj’s hands: so calloused and worn with work that that they were glossy-smooth, like the inside of an ox-yoke or the edge of an oarlock. Smooth as dry dust. Her father’s hands had been a little like that.
Or this about the ghostly shadow that haunts Kate:
Plain Kate watched the third shadow; it pinned her eyes. It was supposed to be her shadow, but it wasn’t. It was sinuous and moved like a water snake. She knew in her stomach that this was not a simple shadow, but some cold thing, some damp dead thing that should be resting. And, though their fire was the only light, she thought this shadow was not cast backward from the flame, but was drawing near to it, from outside the tent.
Poets see things; they notice what the rest of us miss. This is one reason they’re poets. Perhaps that’s why Bow’s prose resonates so strongly with readers: We read a description or a phrase and think, “Yes. That’s exactly right! It’s perfect. That’s how I would have described that, if only I’d known how.” But we don’t know how, most of us, which is why we’re not poets.
Plain Kate is a fairly tale that hearkens back to the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm. It’s Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and Pinocchio and Little Red Riding-Hood as they were meant to be read, long before Disney got to them and wiped them clean of the grim horror that made them such powerful cautionary folk tales. Meant for young adults, Plain Kate speaks honestly to young people, but it’s a beautiful book that can be enjoyed by all ages, because it is written in language that appeals to us all and because it tells a story with which we can all identify. Plain Kate takes us back to our innocent childhoods, to a time when every nighttime creak of a floorboard, every branch scraping against a frost-rimed window, every whisper of the cold wind sent delicious chills through us—delicious because we knew, in our heart of hearts, that we were in fact safe and warm and loved. Bow’s book helps us relive those days, and it reminds us that the journey on which we set out is not necessarily the journey we end up taking; and that in a quest, the prize that is sought is not always the prize ultimately won.