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The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin
Book Name: The Wild Girls
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher(s): PM Press
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Novella
Release Date: May 1, 2011 (US) June 23, 2011 (UK)

The Wild Girls is a Nebula award-winning novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, republished in 2011. It follows the story of two girls kidnapped and sold into slavery as children, and their subsequent haunting by the ghost of a baby that died in the same raid. The rest of this neat little book contains a few poems, an interview with Le Guin and two essays, one on the publishing industry and the other on the virtue of modesty.

There is a school of thought that likes its fantasy dark and gritty, containing rape, bloodshed and ‘realism’. At first glance, The Wild Girls might fulfill many of expectations of this subgenre: it contains rape, slavery and child-murder, alongside young men out to raid and plunder. What it also does is approach these subjects from the perspective of a young girl.

Le Guin names the captors ‘gods’, while the members of their aristocratic class are called ‘Crowns’ and their city is the Sky City. The girls, by contrast, are members of a class and group of nomadic tribes called the ‘Dirt’ people. Within the limitations of this fantasy world, the society is structured so that Crown men must marry Dirt girls, and Crown women must marry a third, mercantile class called Roots.

This allows Le Guin a set up in which these two young girls are kidnapped to be raised as future wives to Crown men – either as slaves, sold to other families, or to be married to the men who originally captured them. That Le Guin is such a fine writer makes the violence in this story worse. When she describes the way a young girl’s head drops from her neck after her throat has been cut, we feel it viscerally. It is imaginatively alive. And there is no devil may care butcher with a heart of gold to trust in here. The girls are in the main part unable to change their fate, their futures decided by the family that own them.

These two girls, named by their owners Modh and Mal, are brought together by the most ordinary of bonds. The eleven-year-old Modh follows her younger sister Mal because she cannot bear to lose sight of her younger sibling. Upon her discovery by the men of the city, she too is taken captive and becomes a slave for life. Over time, however, she copes better with the city than Mal, and eventually becomes the prized wife of one of the Crown men, the city’s ‘gods’. She is aided in this adjustment by the mother of the man she marries, who teaches her how to adapt to her role in this society. It is the younger sister’s forced marriage and her new husband’s attempts to rape his teenage bride that signal the story’s tragic denouement.

This story is concerned primarily with the unpalatable truth behind the power struggles between men and women, rich and poor. No one will rise to overthrow the gods: the best the girls can hope for is a kind husband and to bear a Crown son. But this is also a story about death and the rituals surrounding it. The baby that haunts them is named but unchristened. The rites are not correctly said after her death. The baby’s cries haunt both the sisters’ throughout the narrative. They are a refrain reminding them of their own mortality, issuing a warning. And the warning is apt, for both the girls’ fates are ultimately brutal and unheroic. They are also realistic: the necessary endpoint of the class-based, patriarchal society that Le Guin has created.

The included essays, Staying Awake While We Read and On Modesty, are a counterpoint that enrich this beautifully crafted story.

I’m going to skip lightly over Staying Awake While We Read, because my day job is in publishing, but it contains more than one enjoyable statement, including “publishing is not, in fact, a sane or normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism”. Le Guin follows up these statements by damning J.K. Rowling with faint praise and saying that “most blogs are merely self-indulgent, and the best I’ve seen function only as good journalism”. Which brings me neatly to the second essay, On Modesty.

On Modesty is interesting because it reflects an attitude that has always existed, whether classified as the introvert (see Susan Cain’s Quiet for the latest pop science interpretation) or as a national characteristic, like the British love of self-deprecation.

Le Guin makes a salient point in noting how the historical usage of the word modesty is gendered, and this is where she begins her essay. She argues that what modesty has come to mean in respect to women has weakened the usage of the word–arguing that in Western discourse extraversion has become a ‘desirable norm’ and self-confidence ‘an illimitable virtue’. There is something very attractive about her depiction of modesty, particularly in relation to artists and writers. She calls modesty ‘a realistic assessment of the job to be done and one’s ability to do it’. It made me think of the modesty of Le Guin’s writing, the simplicity of construction of The Wild Girls. She doesn’t need to shout to get her point across.

True modesty, she argues, enables conversation and dialogue to happen. It is not advertisement, but instead ‘communion’. It is an old-fashioned suggestion, but one that rings very true and might comfortably be extended to the diverse online community around fantasy literature.

Le Guin can occasionally be a bit heavy-handed in the dispersal of her beliefs, but the deft touch of The Wild Girls serves to highlight some interesting questions. This slight volume contains far more than its 100 or so pages. It is well worth the effort of digging out (it’s possible to source in the UK and mine was an American edition) and reading, both for a masterly fantasy novella and an invocation of the virtues of the modest.


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