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Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.

The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.

Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.

The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.

Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.

Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:

Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.

In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.

I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is best known as a science fiction writer—one of the few African American women science fiction writers, and the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. However, she has written at least one book which combines historical fiction with time travel.

Kindred was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and is still taught in schools and colleges today. I can easily understand why. It is an absolutely gripping novel: engaging characters and plenty of action and suspense, as well as thought-provoking situations that lend themselves to classroom discussion. I could not put it down, and finished it in two days.

Kindred begins in 1976, with an African-American woman, Dana, and her white husband, Kevin, unpacking in their new apartment near Los Angeles. Suddenly, Dana finds herself transported to the bank of a river where a white boy is drowning. She saves his life, and then returns home to her California apartment just as suddenly. She doesn’t know where she’s been, or who she has just saved. However, this becomes clear on her second sudden trip, when she is called to save the same boy, Rufus, now a few years older, from a fire he started. Upon questioning the boy, she finds out that she is in Maryland and the year is 1815. When Rufus reveals his full name, she recognizes him as one of her own ancestors.

It turns out that Rufus somehow has the ability to call Dana back to him whenever he’s in a life-threatening situation. However, each trip for her grows longer and more dangerous. Rufus is the son of a slave-owner, and each time she visits, Dana is in danger of being enslaved herself. During her third trip, Kevin tries to prevent her from being transported by grabbing onto her, and he is also transported with her.

Most of the novel takes place in the early 1800’s, with only brief interludes in 1976, so it is more of a historical novel than a science fiction novel. The time travel is the only science fiction device used in the novel, and there are no machines or other technology to make it happen. It just happens.

In a 1997 interview in Callaloo magazine Butler said the idea for Kindred came to her in college, when she heard a young man, part of the Black Power Movement, blame his ancestors for submitting to cruel and humiliating treatment. Butler realized that this man, and perhaps other young adults like him, didn’t understand that he wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the endurance his ancestors exhibited under extreme stress. Butler uses Kindred as a way of exploring how slavery changed both white people and black people. How does a slave-owner develop from an innocent child? Why might a black person choose to endure mistreatment rather than to fight back or try to escape? How might a modern African American cope with a life of slavery?

Kindred is truly a classic work of historical fiction, science fiction, African American literature, and literature in general. I just found out that a Kindred graphic novel adaptation will be released in 2017, so this wonderful novel should find new readers!

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village.

The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the title indicates, the story concerns two old women, Sa’ (75 years old) and Ch’idzigyaak (80 years old). When was the last time you read a novel about the adventures of elderly women? These women have a habit of complaining about their aches and pains as an excuse to avoid hard work. During a cold autumn, at a time of scarce food, the chief of their band decides that the women must be left behind as the younger members move on in search of food.

At first the old women are stunned, and even resigned to dying. Yet they have to admit that they are still capable of hard work. With the help of some tools and supplies they have been left with, they successfully hunt and trap small game. Still, the long, cold winter looms ahead. Will they be able to survive? They decide to set up a more permanent winter camp along a creek teeming with fish that Ch’idzigyaak remembered visiting years ago, and begin their trek to this location.

In writing this book, Velma Wallis relied on her own skills and knowledge of surviving off the land in a remote area. I enjoyed the descriptions of how the women went about the tasks of daily living: maintaining the fire, making snowshoes, using caribou skins to fashion a sled, and digging a temporary snow shelter.

The writing style is simple and direct. Here is a paragraph just after the women learn they are to be left behind:

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death—to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength. Two weak old women stood no chance against such a rule. The news left them without words or action and no way to defend themselves. (p. 7)

Illustrations by Athabaskan Indian artist Jim Grant help readers picture the characters and scenes. This lovely, inspiring book in the vein of My Side of the Mountain can be enjoyed by middle and high school students as well as adults.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel

I suppose The Clan of the Cave Bear should be called “prehistorical fiction” rather than “historical fiction.” It takes place in humanity’s ancient past, before the invention of writing and historical records. The first in a series of six, this novel follows Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl (an ancestor of modern Europeans), as she is adopted into a group of Neandertals.

The Neandertals (which are either a subspecies of Homo sapiens, or a different species of Homo—experts aren’t sure) are destined to die out, and the earth will of course be populated by the descendants of Ayla and her people. However, none of that has happened yet. The Clan, as they call themselves, is aware of the presence of the Others (as they call Ayla’s people), but there is little interaction. Despite the Clan’s dependence on tradition, they allow Ayla, an injured orphan, to live with them, and even overlook her odd appearance (a flat face, a high forehead, and straight rather than bowed limbs) to accept her as a Clan member.
The author, Jean Auel, seems to have done an enormous amount of research to create this ancient world of hunters and gatherers. The novel is filled with descriptions of the flora, fauna, and scenery that Ayla might have encountered. Tools, cooking methods, clothing, and herbal healing are all described in detail.

Auel had to use her imagination to create the rituals, language, and customs of the Neandertals. In her version, the Neandertals use their large brains for memory—they are even able to pass memories down to descendants, with the result that they all have a shared memory going back to their beginnings. However, their smaller frontal lobe means that they have difficulty with innovation and abstraction. The smartest man in the group can count only up to 20, and he is stunned by how quickly Ayla picks up on the concept of numbers. The Clan members are also puzzled by the range of her vocalizations (the Clan uses sign language along with a few spoken words), and the tears that drip from her eyes when she cries.

The main questions of the novel are: will Ayla be able to fit into Clan culture? Will she be able to find a mate, given how “ugly” she looks? Will she incur the curse of the leaders, given her penchant for bending and even breaking Clan rules and traditions? Because she has no shared Clan memory, Ayla must rely on her own ability to learn. This ability is both a blessing and a curse: it helps her survive extreme situations, but also gets her into those extreme situations in the first place, when she does things that no Clan woman would even think of doing.

In addition to Ayla, the novel features another strong and wise woman: Iza, the healer, who adopts Ayla and teaches her to become a medicine woman.

I was fascinated by this novel, but I did think it was too long. Some concepts were repeated too many times. Some rituals were described in too much detail. Some scenes were marred with too much inner thought and/or unnecessary dialogue. Still, I found this book to be a thought-provoking feat of imagination. The next title in the series is The Valley of Horses.