sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

August 10, 2011

into the stacks: plain kate
posted by soe 1:05 am

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

From the jacket: “Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden charms are so fine that some even call her ‘witch-blade’ — a dangerous nickname in a town where witches are hunted and burned in the square. For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate. Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the town that seems set to burn her, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes that she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.”

My take: When Plain Kate’s father suddenly falls ill and dies, she is left without an advocate in the world. Not yet old enough to belong to the guild that would allow her to serve as the master-carver for the town, she is unceremoniously evicted from her home and forced to tell anyone interested in buying her wares that there is another carver they should try first. Settling in a stall in the marketplace, she makes her bed in the drawer of a dresser and sells to those familiar with her work, who like the elegant knifework she is capable of. Yet, in a world where superstition runs strong, a girl with mismatched eyes and a long shadow who lives alone is not safe. When Linay, a wanderer, comes to town and offers to buy her shadow from her, she refuses; unfortunately, he has the magic to force her hand, causing Plain Kate first to pull in a bounteous haul of fish, then for everyone else’s fish to become inedible. When the fishermen start dying, a mob turns on her, and Plain Kate has no choice but to flee with what supplies Linay’s purchase can get her and her trusty cat, Taggle. Oh, and a gift that Linay says is her true heart’s desire.

Adopted on a trial basis by a gypsy band of horse sellers, Plain Kate at last finds a friend in Drina. But what will become of Plain Kate when Drina and her family discover her secrets? And what will become of them all as a specter of death follows in their footsteps each night in the fog?

I want to tell you that I really liked this book, which has garnered a lot of acclaim, all of it deserved. I can say I liked Plain Kate and Tag, and I liked Drina and her grandmother, and ultimately I understood Linay’s motivations. The characters were all well-written, and the plot was well thought out. However, this was, in the end, an absolutely heartbreaking book for me, and I sobbed through the last third of it, in a way that surprised me and left Rudi at odds for how to comfort me. And it’s impossible to talk about why without giving away all sorts of plot points.

In several ways, my reaction to it reminds me of how affected I was by Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake when I read it last year. It ultimately ended up on my best books of 2010 list because I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.

All I can say in the end is that it hurt me to read this book, and I can’t think of anyone I know whom it wouldn’t also pain. You may choose to read Plain Kate in spite of that (for some pain is worth pushing through, of course), and I certainly can’t say it isn’t a story worthy of your time. But know if you do, a little bit of your soul likely will break off and stay behind in the book when you close its covers for the last time.

Pages: 314

This was my fourth book for this spring’s Once upon a Time Challenge.

Category: books. There is/are 2 Comments.

I think I have to read this now, despite your warning.

Comment by Jenn 08.10.11 @ 6:32 am

@Jenn: Okay, as long as you consider yourself warned.

Comment by soe 08.15.11 @ 12:11 am