A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley
Hardcover, 195 pages. Published 1994 (content: 1982-94). Borrowed from the library. Read October 2011.
Last summer I read Robin McKinley's two novels of Damar, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, and I enjoyed the former a lot, though I was ambivalent about the latter. The "About the Author" blurb of The Blue Sword promises that it is the first of many novels about Damar, but in fact, no more ever appeared. There is, however, this collection of five short stories, four of which take place in Damar, or at least on the same fantasy world. (One character from the novels shows up in two of the stories, though he is not really one of my favorites.)
I feel like I have high standards for children's/YA fantasy with female protagonists; I don't like it when the protagonists seem ineffectual or incidental, or if they're empowered in a way I find over simplistic, or if too much emphasis is placed on their relationships to men. (All of these are my problems with Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels.) I don't think I have these same standards for YA fantasy about boys, but then, I don't think I read much of that, either. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that three of the five stories in A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories fail those standards, and so I don't like them, but I don't know if ideology is a good reason to dislike a story. But I'd like to think that these are just bad stories. Bizarrely, obnoxiously bad.
The first two stories, "The Healer" and "The Stagman" are almost the same. The protagonist is a girl in difficulty ("The Healer" features a mute; "The Stagman" a princess about to murdered by her uncle), then the girl is rescued by something/one supernatural (a traveling mage; a stagman), then the girl is taken to the realm of Luthe (who also appeared in The Hero and the Crown), then the girl hangs out there for a while, then she goes home and gets married to a man she met while hanging out with Luthe. That's it? Neither character overcomes any danger or obstacle herself; in fact, in "The Stagman," the army to overthrow her uncle is raised by her soon-to-be-husband while she is content to do nothing! The girl in "The Healer" is healed by Luthe with no risk to herself, preempting what could be a potentially interesting story about someone who's never spoken learning to speak, while the overthrow of the uncle happens in passing in "The Stagman," I don't find either very inspiring or interesting.
The third story, "Tauk's House," is no better. A witch takes a newborn girl from a poor family as payment, she raises the girl alongside her half-troll son (who is seventeen years older!), the girl grows up and walks to a far-off kingdom where she heals a prince, and then she walks back and marries the troll. So what? Is there even a plot? I don't know if it's because McKinley is trying to work in a fairy tale aesthetic, but in fact, fairy tales do not conform to contemporary notions of plotting, and neither do these boring tales.
Thankfully, things picked up with the fourth story, "Buttercups," which is where the beautiful cover image comes from. It's about a hardworking farmer and the woman he marries and the strange force residing beneath a hill on their farm. The characters are engaging, the themes are interesting, the prose is excellent, and the magic is lurking-- I really liked this one. The story kind of just stops at one point, but in a literary way that makes you think you've learned something. (I am pretty sure that that is true.)
The last story is, unusually, set in the 1990s, when it was written. "A Knot in the Grain" is the tale of a girl moving across the state and adjusting. It's full of nice details, showing the thoughts and feelings of someone adjusting to change and the coming of adulthood. I particularly liked how McKinley used the books the protagonist was reading to tell us stuff; she reads Diana Wynn Jones, The Last Unicorn, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Charles Dickens, and even Mistress Masham's Repose. It could be a piece of nongenre fiction, almost, but there is magic, which is subtle, but disconcerting and powerful. Again, the ending is kinda off, but overall I liked it a lot.
I'm glad to have read both "Buttercups" and "A Knot in the Grain," but frustrated at the rest of the stories here. I don't know that I'll be reading more McKinley after this; my experiences have been too mixed, and I'm not really interested by all the fairy tale retellings anyway.