Back in 2016, I made a list of the top 10 fantasy authors I’d never read. – (I still need to get to three more of those authors!) Erin Bow was on that list, though I put the cover for Sorrow’s Knot. Since then, I’ve been reading multiple Native people saying that they find the writing of fantasy books about indigenous people set in the mythic past to be harmful. And also, Sarah Zettel told me she thought Plain Kate was an even better book. So, I decided to read both Plain Kate and The Marrow Thieves, a Indigenous futuristic speculative fiction book.
Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Arthur Levine Books/Scholastic, 2010. ISBN 978-0545166645
Plain Kate is set in a fantasy Russia, where Kate is the woodcarver’s daughter, and learning his trade. When she’s orphaned and has to leave her house, she tries living out of his stall instead, but people are suspicious of a girl with her carving skills, especially because they need the power of the charms she can carve. Finally, she is pushed into what she knows is a bad bargain – one wish for her shadow to a very unsavory man by the name of Linay. At least she gets something out of it – her cat, Taggle, is able to talk with her, so that she isn’t entirely alone, even as she has to leave her village and try never to let anyone see her increasing lack of shadow.
Out on the road, she is befriended by Drina, a young Roamer girl, who teaches her their ways and speech – but as this goes wrong, Kate is left trying to undo the mess she has accidentally created on her own, amid spreading fog, damp, famine and sleeping sickness. Kate has to make some very hard choices amid growing fear, and the villain grows increasingly sympathetic as the story goes on. I would like to hear from a Romany if the treatment of the Roamers here is fair – but I didn’t feel like Bow was painting them with either of the extremes of over romanticized or vilified. The publisher rates this as 12 and up – it seems to be that perfect upper middle grade to early teen book, dealing with some tough topics with big emotional stakes, but without the heavy romance of so many later teen books. All in all, this was astoundingly good, and I’m glad I finally got to it.