Ma felt [Rin’s] forehead, her cheeks, made her stick out her tongue, prodded her belly, listened to her elbows for creaks, pulled down her earflaps to look for rash. “Seem fine. You not feeling fine?”
Rin shrugged again. She’d never bothered anyone about the spiny things in her heart. It did not seem right to complain, especially not to Ma, who worked from the moment her eyes opened until she groaned as she lay down at night. Maybe everyone felt knotted like that but it just was not something spoken aloud. Or maybe only Rin was all wrong.
Author: Shannon Hale
Synopsis: The quiet one in a large, active Forest family, Rin has always run to the trees for peace—until the day she wanted something for herself too much, and the trees began whispering horror back at her. Terrified, Rin leaves the Forest for Bayern’s capital, where her brother Razo’s girl gets her a job helping care for the queen’s little son. But the boy is in danger, and Bayern faces deadly attack from the nearby kingdom of Kel. Despite the horror, Rin’s connection with the trees may help save lives.
Notes: I’ve now read all the Bayern books, and loved all the heroines. The Goose Girl is my favorite, both the book and the girl, but I felt a unique and strong connection with Rin as well.
After taking us through wind, fire and water in the three previous books, Hale leads us to the forest, a realm of quiet, ancient thoughts. The heroine she places there is silent and tormented with a sort of tree-rot inside herself, an overwhelming and inescapable sense of her own wrongdoing. Rin’s self-loathing comes from the sort of memories that healthy young people in good families regret—a moment of verbally bullying another child, a powerful lie, a stolen kiss—and the torment of those memories takes over her life and personality.
Having given her protagonist the burden of guilt, Hale sets about using the symbolism of trees and the methodology of courageous self-giving to set things right. Goose girl Isi serves as mentor, with Enna as comic relief and Dasha as stranger-becoming-sister. Among the “fire-sisters”, so called because all three of them can speak elemental languages including that of fire, young Rin learns to face her own strengths and weaknesses.
Hale has called this an incredibly difficult book to write, probably her hardest, and I could understand that, particularly if spunky Miri (Princess Academy) is the character most like Shannon herself. Rin spends much of the book absolutely frozen in fear, terrified to speak or act, and maintaining interest in a protagonist who will hardly say or do anything is an immense challenge. Rin’s fears and darkness permeate the story, and though the book has its funny moments, it doesn’t have the romance or the sparkling thrills of Hale’s others. Rin’s journey and victory are like Ents, like trees: slow, still and quiet, internal.
Which, of course, is why I loved Rin so much. I felt like I was her, like I knew all of a sudden why I fall in love with big old trees, and what was happening when I said mean things to my sisters when I was younger or when I’d set myself to get my own way no matter what. I understood the secret the trees finally gave Rin for dealing with herself, and thought I could sense some way to try applying it in my own life, through faith in which a tree is centrally symbolic. A book is like a mirror, said Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; I’m not sure I’ve ever found one so clear. Of course, the best mirroring books will be different for everyone; this one worked for me.
As always, Hale’s imagination is vivid, sensory, her magic and her settings and her characters all alive and tangible. The only thing I missed from this book was the sweet romance she portrays so brilliantly; I had hoped we’d get to actually see Rin right a certain wrong. The book was primarily about Rin finding herself, and I understood that; I also understood why the last scene in the book was what it was. It was still a happy ending. It was just the kind of happy ending that makes me itch to write a scene of fan fiction.
I also suspect the book was subtly alchemical, and there seemed to be some ring composition/symbolism going on. I’d like to study the tree symbolism in it a bit, too, as I think that aspect is the first and potentially the strongest relief from what might otherwise have been just a tale of self-actualization (besides outright tragedy, there are few things more lonely or disappointing than just self-actualization.) Between the ancient elm in which Rin meets transformation, and the even more ancient aspen grove, there’s some interesting thought to work with.
Recommendation: Read it under a tree, and then go hug your family.