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Marissa Lingen

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Westmark! [Mar. 9th, 2009|01:17 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Okay, here we are: March 9. Time to discuss Lloyd Alexander's Westmark. For those of you just tuning in, discussion of The Kestrel will follow on April 9, and The Beggar Queen will be discussed here May 9.

When I say discussion, I do mean it. If you want to write things in your own ljs or non-lj journals, please link in the comments or send me an e-mail; I will edit the post to add links if I get them. You do not have to be on my friendslist to participate; everyone's welcome.

Reminder: this post will contain spoilers for Westmark and only Westmark. Spoilers for The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen can come later. (Another post on my feelings about spoilers may also come later, but that's related to West Wing, not Westmark. Big difference.)

My personal history with Westmark: I was about 8 when I found the trilogy. I was in some ways the perfect audience for this book. Not only did I have parents who talked to me about politics and about evil in the world as something I would have to engage with personally, starting now rather than later, but when I was 8, my Gran was in her 80s and still running the print shop she and Great-Grandpa had started all those years ago. A political book about a printer's devil? This was immediately my kind of book. I loved it right off the bat, more than any other Lloyd Alexander books, and the trilogy has stayed in my favorite books ever for over two decades now. I see no reason to think it'll be displaced.

One thing struck me about Westmark when we recently watched the abomination that was the movie version of Prince Caspian. ("Take out the astronomy and put in badly-used griffins": not a formula for success with mrissas, it turns out.) In a movie, you have to choose how old the characters are, because you have to cast a specific actor and make them up and dress them, so they will look a particular age whether you want them to or not. So there were things that didn't work nearly so well for me with Peter as a strapping at-least-17-year-old as they did with Peter at 13 or 14 in my head. (This is particularly true when you have written in 1) a continuation of the explicit WWII setting from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and 2) a frustration on Peter's part--quite reasonable in context but handled badly--with being "treated like a kid." Big hulking boy like that, war on, experience with battle, frustration with being treated like a kid? He's not going back to boarding school, you morons. His line is, "Yeah, Sarge, my name is Peter, uh, Smith, I swear I'm of age, gimme the king's shilling and ship me to France." Thousands did it. Thousands.) But I digress. (Hands who's surprised.) Many of the children's books I've reread as an adult have struck me with how young the characters are. Westmark does the opposite. Theo and Mickle are clearly older than the water rats. But how old are they? Old enough. Not too old. When you're 8 years old and reading it, they're just a bit older than you. But by any standard these are young adults--and they are treated as adults, not as children. Florian doesn't find Theo an adoptive family to lodge with, he finds him a job and a room to rent. He is big enough to be effective when he cracks the militia officer over the head with a type frame. And while Florian's crew seems a bit older than Theo, we are explicitly told that Florian himself is only a few years older.

This book was shelved in the children's section of my childhood library. They had a YA section. Westmark was in children's. The copy I have was reprinted by a YA imprint. I don't think I've ever run into an adult who read it and felt it was too "young" to be worth their time. (Speak up if that last describes you.)

This really makes me wonder how much we aren't giving children enough credit for reading older protagonists. I think the thing about Theo that makes him work as a protagonist for younger children is twofold: one, that he doesn't yet know where he's going and what he's doing with himself when he gets there, and two, that while we see some of Theo's inner thoughts and reactions, we don't really see them at length. We know that he worries about what the use is in what he's doing, and about whether it's the right thing. We know that he misses Mickle when they're apart. But they are not a swoony couple. They talk, they do things together, they teach each other things. They are very matter-of-fact. And the money concerns are matter-of-fact as well: Theo looks like a scarecrow. Theo stays in a ramshackle room where "the narrow staircase lurched up three flights and stayed in place out of habit." But he doesn't spend time agonizing. He does things about his condition. I think this makes the kind of concerns a wealthy society tries to shield children from more palatable for children than the kind of adult novel with a lot of angst-ridden interiority. I know it makes them more palatable for the kind of grown-up I grew up to be, but I am so tangled with these books now that I can't tell you how much it was that I was that kind of person, how much it was that I grew up in that kind of family, and how much it was that I learned how to be a grown-up from these very books.

One of the big things I noticed was how many of the characters and their professions were about voice. It comes up over and over again. Both Theo's original profession of printer's devil and his new profession of letter-writer are about giving people voices they wouldn't have without his help. At the end of the book he's traveling as one of the people so that the government knows what their actual conditions are, and that, too, is searching for a voice. And Mickle, Mickle is even better with voice stuff. Sign language and ventriloquy! How perfect! She is silenced, she is not herself. Yet it is absolutely impossible for Mickle to be anything but herself--as a spiritualist, she gives reassurance to the genuinely grieving as much as she can within the framework of charlatanry. And when Cabbarus tries to use her for his own purposes, her voice can't be channeled to his purposes. Even at her earliest appearance, she works with Count Las Bombas on her terms, not his: the phrenological head routine sets up her unwillingness to bow to authority or to be anything but herself in even the most outrageous of her deceptions. She can pretend to be a mermaid, a spirit, an oracle. She cannot pretend to be not-Mickle.

Mickle has some commonality with Alexander's other major heroines. He clearly had no patience for shy, demure girls who did not speak unless spoken to. But Eilonwy and Vesper Holly, despite their own personal griefs and worries--and they do have some--are not crying in their sleep and waking not knowing it. Or if they are, we don't see it. We see the night side of Mickle as well as the day side. She has been scarred by her life. The terror she feels at seeing Cabbarus and being in the palace rooms again would be simply incomprehensible to Vesper Holly. Much though I love Vesper, I think that makes her more of an archetype and Mickle more of a character. She does what needs doing, but it costs her. It has to cost her.

And there's more of that to come.

What else? Anybody?

ETA: markgritter contributes Westmark: Resisting Tyranny to the discussion.

[User Picture]From: markgritter
2009-03-09 06:37 pm (UTC)
I posted an essay, entitled Westmark: Resisting Tyrrany

Marissa's supplemental reading for the Westmark book discussion was Teckla and Night Watch, but I think she picked the wrong Pratchett. She ought to have read The Truth and Going Postal--- and not just for the obvious connection with Theo's trade...

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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2009-03-09 08:23 pm (UTC)
I'm coming at this from the perspective of one who read these books in elementary school, but has not looked at them since.

Ages: you're very right. I don't know what age I thought the characters were years ago, but on this read-through, I initially pegged Theo at maybe thirteen or fourteen, and Mickle substantially younger, until the relationship between them got going and I mentally revised her up to his age, and then after that they both whipsawed between fourteen and about seventeen or so. I'm very much not sure what age they're "supposed" to be -- putting that in quotes because I think they're supposed to be mutable in the eyes of the reader.

I don't think I've ever run into an adult who read it and felt it was too "young" to be worth their time. (Speak up if that last describes you.)

Kind of? Not that I think it isn't worth my time, but it didn't engage me as strongly as I wanted. (I suspect, however, that The Kestrel will do better, since I seem to recall liking that one much more.)

I thought the ideas were plenty old enough, but I wanted so much more meat on the bones of the presentation. Cabbarus was the weakest link, for me. The . . . shallowness of exploration, if I can use that term in a non-pejorative sense, that obtains in children's lit (as opposed to adult) leaves me feeling very unsatisfied, and nowhere more than with Cabbarus, who felt a little muh-ha-ha-ha for me, very heavy-handed in his manipulation of the court. Also, to a lesser extent, with things like the ease and rapidity with which Florian's political views were presented; I wanted things done more gradually, and less directly, with more exploration of their underpinnings. That's the one way in which this book felt "too young" for me; the other aspects were fine.

(And it's a worthy question, how I would have viewed it, had I not been page-proofing the very dense and highly political In Ashes Lie on the same weekend I read Westmark.)

One thing that struck me: contra the usual tropes of fantasy, this is distinctly an eighteenth-century setting. Wigs and ribbons to tie them back with are the biggest clue, but a great many of the details speak (very quietly) to that period. Which is perfect for the political issues Alexander's airing, since the democratic revolution that was the seventeenth-century English Civil War had a distinctly different flavor from the American and French Revolutions, and this is very much the latter flavor of book.

(Er, yeah. Can you tell I'm proofing Ashes right now? <g>)

I want more of Mickle. I liked her, for all the reasons you describe, but I wanted more of her in the store. And more Queen Caroline, too. And more -- well, everything. <g>
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-09 08:31 pm (UTC)
The Kestrel is definitely my favorite.

I have noticed this with children's books and some YA books before, too: that at least some of the detail I remembered was stuff I brought with me to the story. I noticed this with the Arthur Ransome books: I am now forever unable to disentangle how much of how well I thought I knew the characters was from what I thought about them and what my friends and I talked about and decided was canonical, and since there are 12 of them instead of the 3 Westmark books, by the time I'm rereading Pigeon Post I'm not at all sure whether I'm remembering something because it's ingrained or because I read it in Swallowdale.

And I think it is not only distinctly 18th century (yes!) but also distinctly French-influenced rather than British. Cabbarus owes a great deal more to the series of French ministers from Richelieu through Talleyrand and even more particularly to their fictional portrayals, than he does to any of the Brits.
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2009-03-09 09:27 pm (UTC)
On re-reading the book this weekend, it was a little young for my tastes now. Not to say I wanted to put it down, or that the story didn't engage me, but there was a lot less depth than I expect these days, and less thinking through consequences. (For example, Sparrow and Weasel habitually pick over dead bodies and they never catch any dreadful disease from association with rotting corpses.)

I seem to be a death penalty supporter in fiction, whatever I am in life, because I could have yelled at Theo and Mickle for letting Cabbarus go at the end. It'll all end in tears, I tell you! (And that's not a spoiler for anything further, because it's been at least ten years since I read the other two books and I can't remember whether he messes up their lives again. I'm just sure he's going to mess up somebody's.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-09 09:29 pm (UTC)
What adult fantasies are you reading that think through consequences that well? I was just thinking, as I'm reading Illusion, that a great many more words to play with are not actually helping with thinking through the consequences.

I, too, am a great deal more bloodthirsty in fiction than in life. I have wanted the characters in Numb3rs and Criminal Minds to shoot people more times than I can count, and yet not only do I want a government that tries not to shoot people, I want people to think of that as normal, or at least an option.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2009-03-09 10:08 pm (UTC)
This was fascinating, because it is the sort of book about which I generally think 'my, I would have loved this at eleven', but I remember how hard I bounced off it at eleven, with a sort of boinnnnng noise and almost a headache. It wasn't an easy start this time, either-- I had to grit my teeth for about the first fifty pages, because I could see it had potential but wasn't enjoying it at all. I really only started liking it when Mickle turned up.

I think looking at it now that this is because of some odd tonal whiplash in the first chunk. The first paragraph, especially, where it starts by I think playing on the assumption that the reader won't know what a printer's devil is; and then you have Theo's life set up with a sort of tongue-in-cheekness to it, the stuff about how the town wants to make him miserable by itself, or how reading has spoiled him for practicality, these things that you can tell the narrative voice doesn't mean seriously. And then, no, it is a world where bad things happen and where people die, suddenly, shockingly-- except that again there are fewer consequences to that than one would think, and this tongue-in-cheekness keeps bubbling up. I feel like it took a while for the voice of the book to really integrate itself, figure out what tone it wanted to take.

And I also feel like part of this is a length issue. I liked this book fine. I think it's a good book. I think it could have been a great book at another half its length, because I feel like each of the things I felt as jerky tonal changes, or as consequences being ignored, would have had the time to be smoother, more delved, more expansive. I don't think this should have been an adult fantasy novel, but I would have loved to see it at the greater lengths YA publishing now allows.

So yes, it did feel young for me, primarily because it felt condensed. But I am very much looking forward to The Kestrel, because this also had the sense of laying the ground for a masterpiece; everything is in place for the next book to be really brilliant, if it likes.

I think someone could write a worthwhile essay on this as one of the ancestors of things like Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books and Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper stuff. That someone is not likely to be me, but I do hope that someone exists.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2009-03-09 10:28 pm (UTC)
That's interesting about the narrator's frivolity. It isn't precisely Theo's inner voice--perhaps the narrator matures as Theo does, though I'd have to reread it to be certain.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2009-03-09 10:26 pm (UTC)
I thought I hadn't read these, and I still don't remember how it all turns out, but about halfway through the first chapter, it started feeling like my home town. I haven't lived there in years, but if I get in the car I can get where I'm going (but only if I don't think about it). I find Las Bombas irritating, and I think I always have--I certainly don't like his type when I meet them in other fictions.

Anyway. This time around, I noticed the names. Augusta and Augustine are obvious. Mickle, less so: "much." Theo = god, which I'm not sure what to do with. Las Bombas = pumps, which I suppose I can see, and also "bombastic." Musket makes noise. Cabbarus, I don't know. Cabal, maybe? Caroline makes me think of Carolus Magnus. Florian sounds like he ought to be your typical upper-class twit, and I don't think it's an accident. Dr. Torrens is saved by the river.

Who am I forgetting?
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2009-03-09 10:32 pm (UTC)
Caroline was also the queen of one of the Hanoverian Georges -- the second, maybe? Can't remember for sure. Eighteenth century, regardless.
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[User Picture]From: mkille
2009-03-09 11:38 pm (UTC)
I remember reading at least two of the three books when I was younger, but starting Westmark, it was not at all a story I remember.

For characters' ages, I have the completely subjective impression of Theo as 16 or 17, and Mickle as 14 or 15. Your comment about older protagonists makes me think...not terribly coherently...about how "apprentice" was such a key archetype in the books I read, growing up, but that seems so very absent from contemporary YA fiction, let alone books aimed at younger readers. In a lot of ways Westmark seems to me the story of a boy "trying on" different masters as he transitions to adulthood. He goes from the printer, to the scoundrel, to the revolutionary. In some ways the ending feels a bit of a cop-out, because the question "how to maturely engage these social circumstances?" is cut short by the restoration of Princess Augusta. "Date the queen" doesn't seem like a reasoned response to monarchy and civil unrest.

But it is still a very good book, and I enjoyed it much.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-10 12:20 am (UTC)
papersky recently used a definition in a Tor post that...oh, where was it, where was it. I thought it was in the Starship Troopers post, but now I can't find it. Anyway, she distinguished between a juvenile and a YA in that a juvenile was about entering the adult world of work and a YA was about entering the adult world of interrelationship. I have probably gotten that wrong because I can't find the quote. Anyway I think it is an interesting distinction, and one that applies to Westmark a bit oddly: while Theo and Mickle are entering the adult world of relationships, they are in a circumstance that inextricably tangles that with work that needs doing.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2009-03-09 11:51 pm (UTC)
Theo and Mickle and Count Las Bambas all feel real, as does Florian: Cabbarus is almost too much the stereotypical Evil Vizier.

I think, despite the otherwise eighteenth-century-France type setting, the model for his trying for the monarchy is a thousand years earlier, with the Mayors of the Palace.

The length worked for me: yes, short chapters, but that seemed to fit how Theo was thinking about his life, never too long at once.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-10 06:57 pm (UTC)
Yah, I suspect that my attachment to the trilogy is more due to The Kestrel, too, although I still like Westmark.

The thing about Florian is that everyone wants his approval so damn much, and I kind of have a problem with that. On both sides: that kind of noblesse oblige looks pretty uncomfortable for the noblesse.
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[User Picture]From: callunav
2009-03-10 12:37 pm (UTC)

A few words, oddly, in support of the character Cabbarus. And assorted other things.

Oddly, for me it was when Cabbarus was being outrageous that he didn't feel like a cliche to me. The evil pretender to the throne who does something a little less than murder and a lot more than failing to save the life of the little princess is pretty standard fair. The evil advisor who says, "Your majsety - adopt ME!!!" is not so much. The only thing I would have wished for there was for people who heard about it - as well as the king himself - to have been utterly gobsmacked. "He did what?"

He's a lot less sneaky and a lot more confident of his power than I expect out of this archetype.

This also takes me back to the narrative voice, which I liked so much: the scenes where we see Cabbarus in action - as a full character, as it were - are the more "I am a villain, yes. Next question?" kind of acceptance, but the passages describing him - how annoyed he is that the king has started getting better and he, Cabbarus, will need to get some new physicians quickly, for instance - which cover the more schemey aspects are back to the ironic narrative voice and make me grin.

Theo's innocence:

To me, the fact that Theo had lived through everything he had and stayed that naive wasn't a flaw in characterization, it was the characterization. Theo is someone for whom the world will never* be comfortingly black-and-white, even when he thinks it ought to be and would be happier if it were, even in those situations when it's so obvious to the people he respects and likes that it hardly even seems a matter of conviction. And this is how Theo is meant to be. Some of the tension of the story comes from Theo being swayed by first one person and another, with the threat of his starting to shape himself to their ideals instead of continuing to very slowly discover his own, but when he grabs Cabbarus's arm, we see him win free - not only of the influence of almost everyone else but even of his own pre-conceptions about himself and how the world works. He doesn't understand why he saved him, but he never considered letting go. That's who - that's what a Theo is. He's not a disciple of Florian's: by the time he gets the coveted "my child," it's too late for it to matter the way it would have before. He's not an apprentice joyful rogue learning from Las Bambas. He's not even defined by True Love - he's got a relationship with Mickle, but it involves his going away from her in order to become more himself, as well as his being with her. The truest plot summary of this I can think of is, "Theo makes a good beginning at discovering who he is." In some way or another everything that happens feeds into that process. But that's also what a Theo is: a theo is something that drinks in and works through everything. He doesn't have the opportunity to close his eyes to anything; he's empathic even when he doesn't want to be, and when his empathy fails, he feels it as a wrongness in his relationship with the world.

Finally, on the subject of age:

Actually, this is where I diverge. I have an odd quirk which causes me much misery: it drives me nuts not to know how old important characters are. This is true of adults in books written for adults, too: I needed to know Lymond's age before I could feel comfortable with him. As I've found true in life, under 25 or so, absolute age matters. Over that, it's relative age that matters: I don't need to know whether someone is thirty-seven or forty-one as long as I know how their age informs their relationship with the other characters. But books about kids - hell, even movies or TV shows in which I can't immediately peg a kid's age - just nag at me. So that's actually one of the things I would have preferred to have from the novel and didn't get.

ETA: sorry, screwed up and posted this as a reply to something first, and then got all turned around. I think I'm in the right place, now.
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[User Picture]From: callunav
2009-03-10 12:41 pm (UTC)

Also about Theo

The sense I get - which would fit other Lloyd Alexander I can remember, too - is that it is someone who has slowly discovered himself, having been saved partly through strength of character and greatly through circumstance of the comfort of learning who to be from other people, who has the potential to be a good or revolutionary leader. Even by the end of this book, we start to see the...the gravity well of Theo's nascent self-knowledge having more pull than Florian's well-portrayed dramatic charisma. I presume that by the end of the story-line, he will be fully fledged as a man who is a leader even when he's not trying to be.

My concern is that I like Mickle, and I want her to get as much interesting character development as Theo, which so far hasn't quite happened. The title of the third book reassures me.
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2009-03-10 06:54 pm (UTC)
As I was falling asleep last night I had a further thought about Cabbarus. He doesn't seem evil, really, so much as amoral--almost innocent in some ways. It's an odd thought, that. It may be due to the overall tone of the book and its lack of, again, grit; perhaps if it were a different and grittier book Cabbarus would seem more explicitly evil. But this book is not that book, so I don't know.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-10 06:55 pm (UTC)
Really? Huh. Because for me, dumping a kid down a well because she is inconvenient to your political aims is pretty evil.
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2009-03-10 07:17 pm (UTC)


Thanks for hosting this, it's fun! I'm getting a chance to stretch some skills and habits that haven't come out for a while. There are things I miss about college, though I certainly don't miss having my free time eaten by homework.

It finally occurred to me to start stalking (OK, tracking) this entry so I don't have to keep checking whether anyone has posted new stuff in one of the other threads.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-10 08:06 pm (UTC)

Re: P.S.

Glad you're enjoying it! I am too.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2009-03-13 11:27 pm (UTC)
Coming in tardy here. Every time I felt like talking about Westmark, I wasn't at my computer. And when I was at my computer, I forgot about Westmark.

This was my first time reading it. I thought it was a charming book. I agree with those who felt like it could have been meatier. It seemed very sketchy to me, almost like a summary. I also didn't like not knowing Theo and Mickle's ages. I need to have that nailed down.

I also thought it was very interesting to have the monarchy questioned in a fantasy book. It seems like every fantasy is about restoring the "good and rightful" monarch and ousting the evil one. Almost never is it asked whether the monarchy is good for the country at all. I also appreciated Theo's clear moral compass. So much of fantasy these days, it seems, lingers in the darkness of the human soul. The stories elaborately justify the immoral choices of its protagonist, while humanizing its villain. Rape and torture are thrown in liberally. It's interesting to be confronted with a character who won't compromise, and I thought the scene where he walks away from Los Bombas was handled with a great deal of skill and subtlety, as was Mickle's reaction later.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-14 11:28 am (UTC)
I think one of the things that makes Theo's clear moral compass work for me is that the book doesn't pretend that the world is full of choices where this will not be any kind of practical drawback. Leaving Las Bombas, for example, puts him in a situation where he doesn't really know what he's doing with himself, and it puts him in a situation where he has made Mickle feel abandoned. He has done as right a thing as he could figure out to do, and it isn't presented as wrong, but it also isn't presented as simple.
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[User Picture]From: mamapduck
2009-03-24 01:36 pm (UTC)
I have a child older than many of y'all were when you read these books first and I'm getting them for the first time just now. (I'm waiting for the library to tell me "Kestrel" is in.)

I struggled with Theo's age because he is clearly NOT as old as the cover art makes him out to be (or he's a screaming pervert who needs to Back Up Offa Mickle) but I felt a need to know how old he was so I could get a picture of him in my head. I'm going with about 15- old enough in that sort of world to be recognizing his future with Mickle but not so old as to absolutely have to get her into a hayloft Right Now. Old enough to blend in at the younger end of a set of people who might have been attending the university.

I like that Theo gets forced into a situation where he must do violence, knows it was unavoidable and still rejects it as a way of life. He knows he had to defend himself in the print shop but it doesn't send him down a path of violence-for-cause. The conscious choice to eschew violence is a more profound one when you have all the information- it's harder and more meaningful coming from one who has dealt it out before.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-03-25 01:22 pm (UTC)
I wonder how much that was influenced by Mr. Alexander's age. He was born in 1924, so his generational cohort was exactly the men who had to go off and fight WWII and then come home and decide that violence was not their way of life.
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[User Picture]From: thomasbull
2009-05-03 01:01 am (UTC)
Thanks for recommending the series.
I have a friend who's planning to name her daughter Sparrow.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2009-05-03 09:39 pm (UTC)
Better that than Mickle!
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