McKinley, Robin: Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, A

I picked up A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, by Robin McKinley, Thursday night because I still was experiencing leftover hyperactivity from the trial at the start of the week. Fairy tales seemed like a good way to calm down enough to go to sleep. (The hyper feeling is gone, by the way; I walked around Friday like a zombie, and was hardly better Saturday, despite having done basically nothing all day. Well, besides making an offer on a house.)

There are five stories in this collection; the first two are explicitly set in Damar, since Luthe appears, and the last is set our world or something like it. “The Healer” is the first story, about a woman who has never been able to speak and a man who has lost his magecraft. It’s an odd story because the text leaves it ambiguous as to whether it’s meant to have a happy ending. The second, “The Stagman,” is a look at the subtle damage a wicked uncle can inflict on a princess and at what Luthe can and can’t do.

“Touk’s House” is the third; it starts out as Rapunzel, and comes full circle by the end, but all the same I think it would be inaccurate to call it a Rapunzel story. Which is a good trick, and I enjoyed it. I also liked “Buttercups” for the imagery and the characters; it, oddly, has moral to spare—perhaps making up for “The Healer”?

I was quite close to really liking the title story. It has dead-on descriptions of not knowing anyone and feeling socially awkward. At one point, the protagonist thinks how weeding the garden “didn’t go in a letter very well. It was what kept Annabelle going, but it wasn’t anything she could talk about. This seemed to be part of not having anyone to talk to. It was very confusing.” I knew the feeling; when I was studying for the bar, I usually wouldn’t have an actual conversation until dinnertime, and by then I would have literally lost nouns in all that silence. (“You know, the, the thing.”) However, the event that kicks off the plot is the proposed construction of a highway through the small upstate New York town where the protagonist has moved. The characters all oppose it, and I’m quite sure the reader is supposed to agree. However, Chad’s family is from a small upstate town that had a highway put through it, and they tell me how much a difference the highway has made to the local economy. So when the developers appears at the town meeting and are described as knowing “how to talk about ‘helping the economic profile of this rather depressed area.’ They made the highway sound like a slight inconvenience for a good cause—what were a few meadows and trees one way or another?”, I’m nodding along with the developers, because there is a lot of rural poverty in upstate New York. In other words, I am pretty thoroughly not the audience McKinley was intending for this story. Other people would probably like it just fine, though.

Overall I like this collection better than The Door in the Hedge, because the stories are considerably more concrete. Worth reading.


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  1. Regarding small upstate NY towns and economic development: I first read this book (and the title story) shortly after moving back to Chicago from Ithaca, and upon reading that bit, about how all the local folks were opposed to the highway and poo-pooed the idea of economic development, I immediately thought, “Aha! These people obviously live in Ithaca, NY,” ’cause that attitude is spot-on for that town. I still remember the huge local controversy over whether or not the town should let Wal-Mart build a store there, and the huge amount of resistance to it. (They already had a highway, you see.)

    I also recall a lot of support for the town to put the screws to Cornell University, to try to get more money out of them than Cornell already “voluntarily” contributed. Being a tax-exempt institution and all, the city didn’t feel Cornell was contributing enough to the community, or something. They conveninetly ignored the fact that without the university, Ithaca would be just another economically-depressed rural upstate NY town.

  2. On “The Healer” — in _The Hero and the Crown_, Luthe has a throwaway line in his first meeting with Aerin to the effect of “I will claim that as consolation, but evidently I have not yet learned to make a simple sleeping potion correctly. Lily would be ashamed of me.” Makes me wonder whether “The Healer” was written around the same time, or whether McKinley looked at her book one day and said, “Hmm, who _is_ Lily anyway?”

  3. I’d missed that reference; thanks for pointing it out.

    I know some people who keep hoping for more Damar books based on Aerin’s visions, but it’s not looking too likely at this point, I think…

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