Thursday, March 29, 2012
What We're Reading Now
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is a magnificent blend of Misty of Chincoteague and Jaws. Stiefvater does an incredible job of weaving the celtic myth of the water horse into a modern story of an orphan girl, Kate or Puck Connolly whose entering the Scorpio Races to save her home and keep what remains of her family together.
Water horses are like regular horses, except they are much larger, faster, and have square pupils. Oh, and they are carnivores. They are sometimes "more lupine than equine." The opening line of the book is a haunting refrain, "Today is the first of November. Today someone will die."
Water horses eat people. And other flesh too, sheep, cats, cows, you name it. They come out of the sea in autumn, and ravage the tiny island of Thisby. Even if they are caught, they are always dangerous. You never know when one is going to take a bite out of somebody.
Kate's parents died while out on their boat. They were killed by water horses. About to lose her older brother to the mainland, Kate announces she will be racing in the Scorpio Races on November 1st. She cannot abide riding a water horse though, so she enters her own gray mare (a regular horse meal to the water horses).
Not only is this the first time a domestic horse has run in the Scorpio Races, it is also the first time a girl has entered. This leads to a few coarse comments from sexist, old-school villagers. Comments that give me pause in recommending this book for kids. High school age, no problem. But middle-school? Well, when Kate finds a friend in four time Scorpio Race champion, Sean Kendrick, one old timer makes double pumping gestures with his arms next to his hips and says something like, "Is she a better ride, Sean?" See what I mean?
Sean and Kate's relationship is lovely and pure. There is a definite spark between them as they share a ride on Sean's water horse. They both dream of a scenario where they can live happily ever after on their beloved island. Their relationship is loving rather than lascivious or lustful. One of my favorite scenes is shortly after Sean and Kate realize that they care for each other. At their next meeting, which is in front of several other riders, Sean wonders what Kate will say. She says nothing, however. And hands him a piece of a cake.
And Kate goes to Mass! And confession! And the priest, though too old to drive, is portrayed as a wise and gentle man who genuinely cares about his flock. But Sean is a sort of a pagan. Some on the island have a weird ancient horse goddess religion. When a friend of the family is killed by a water horse, he burned on a pyre, and his horse given back to the sea. There is a parade with a woman dressed a horse goddess who reportedly grants one wish a year. To declare her mount in the races, Kate must pour her blood on a rock, that fifty years ago was the site of a human sacrifice. She only has to slice her finger though, and declare, "By my blood, I will ride." Most villagers treat these New Orleans-esque macabre rites as traditions. They make a big show of these events for the tourists.
I believe this book will be the next Hunger Games or Twilight phenom. The big issues with Hunger Games (gratuitous violence, mercy killing) and Twilight (lust, lust, and more lust) are not a problem in The Scorpio Races. Though very violent, having a natural predatory killer is far preferable to children killing each other.
Leo and the Lesser Lion by Sandra Forrester is the bittersweet, Depression-era, saga of Mary Bayliss. She and her beloved older brother Leo were the victims of drowning from which "Bayliss" recovered, but Leo did not. Their family are practically suffocated with grief. But this is not a sad book! Well, not completely sad.
Mary Bayliss is told many times during her recovery that God must have saved her for a special purpose. Now, don't conjure up images of Steve Martin in The Jerk. I'm being serious. She decides that her purpose is to become a nun. She attends Sacred Heart School, where she has tortured nuns for six years. After making this decision, she starts helping the nuns with the "weary travelers" aka hoboes.
Two nights before Leo died, he and Mary Bayliss climb out the window to go visit a hobo fortune teller. Before they go, Bayliss mentions that their pastor said fortune telling is a sin. Leo laughs and asks her when she started listening to priests anyway. This scene happens early in the book, and put that bad taste in my mouth that I get when the Church is portrayed as silly.
But after Bayliss's decision to become a nun, she gets to know some of the Sisters better. The Sisters are shown to be generous, wise and caring.
Several months after Leo's death, Bayliss's family takes in two girls who were left at the Children's Home. Bayliss struggles with the fact that they are given Leo's room and her old toys. She is also peeved that she can no longer help the Sisters after school, but must watch the girls instead.
However, Bayliss makes a great effort to change her behavior, to be less selfish. There are many scenes where she goes out of her way to be helpful, to not slam doors when she is angry, to not respond to catty remarks. Even after she realizes that being a nun might not be what God wants from her, she does not discard all of her good behaviors.
In spite of its faults, I really enjoyed Leo and the Lesser Lion. And I'm going to let my kids read it too.