Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Westmark!

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.
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