Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

The Kestrel, by Lloyd Alexander

So here we are on the day designated to discuss The Kestrel. This is the only book that has remained on my favorite books list through all the decades of my life to date, from single digits through what little I've had of thirties. The only book that comes anywhere near it for longevity is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I have loved for longer but not as deeply.

And then when the appointed day comes I am exhausted early and not even sure anybody is still with me beyond Westmark. So I will talk about a few things I thought of, and please jump in to say that you've read it too, and what you think.

One of the first things I noticed on this reread is that Alexander let Westmark take almost all the setup. We have the quick sketch-in of Florian's children, a brief reminder of past events, but for the most part, we already know these people and are going forward with them. Who's new? The Monkey, and Connie, and some of Connie's entourage. And Witz, who is like Connie without his own power.

I remember loving Musket's line on Count Las Bombas's current fortunes: "'If things get worse,' said Musket, 'he might have to make an honest living.'" I remember liking that as a kid. And yet Las Bombas does find himself approximately honest--like many rogues in wartime (especially the fictional kind), he's turned to using his deceptive talents for his country. And the limits of his roguery are clear: he's willing to take money from Mickle as queen of Westmark, but not to do so under any kind of false premise.

The stuff about Stock gets me every time, particularly when Theo says, "He wasn't a great poet. He was a good poet. He might have been better. That's the real loss, don't you see?" and Justin doesn't see, because everything is black and white for Justin. Either Stock was a great poet, in which case his death was a great loss--or he was not a great poet, in which case it was not. And the idea that his death might be a great loss because he was a good friend and a human being, because while he lived he had potential and now he has none, is just incomprehensible. He not only doesn't see what Theo is on about, he is not in a frame of mind that can even really remember that Theo was on about something. Any part of Justin's personal history that doesn't fit into one of the sharply divided categories he's constructed is rewritten--and not even consciously.

This is something I think of as hard to do, possibly because I don't see enough of it in fiction. In my actual life, I have known an unfortunate number of people who simply and conveniently forgot any incident in which they did not come out looking admirable, or which did not fit their preconceptions of the world and its workings. And if it's that common in life, I had sort of been thinking it was hard to do in fiction. Yet here we are watching Justin do it, and I think he's believable doing it, though not admirable, and it's done in remarkably few words. So maybe it's not as hard as I tend to think and people are just unwilling or uninterested in doing it.

I think most of the book is worrying at the philosophical ideas Alexander gives to Jacobus: "The old scholar had written that people were gentle by nature, and Florian asked if Theo believed that. Theo had answered that he did. It was, he told Florian, the way he felt, and he was no different from anyone else. He wondered if he had told the truth then. He was afraid that he had." Theo is finding out that while he has done some noble things, he is not incorruptible by circumstance. The frightening thing for him is not finding out that he is a bad person after all but suspecting that he isn't, that all sorts of people could have been Colonel Kestrel if they'd been pushed and then handed a gun. But they weren't Colonel Kestrel, and he was, and I don't think Theo is allowed to let himself off the hook for that. I don't think he's allowed by the text to say that anyone in his circumstance would have done what he did--merely that many might, or something similar. At the end of Westmark, Theo has to live with an act of nobility and goodness that will come back to haunt him. At the end of The Kestrel the acts that will come back to haunt him are not nearly so pure, not nearly so young.

I loved this book when I was 8. The street grit in his ink. The corpse like a side of beef--I remember the corpse like a side of beef, the mouth full of red mud, those things stuck with me from the time I was 8. And I am immensely grateful that my parents didn't flinch back and say, "Let's get between her and this book; there is time enough for war driving good men mad, time enough for class and politics and moral compromise, when she's into double digits." I am so very glad they didn't patronize me.

The thing that bothered me most this time was at the very end with Torrens: "He had done more than raise troops, provisions, and arms. He had stiffened the spirit of his people, giving them courage even when his own had failed. From the Juliana Palace, he had announced victories in battles that had never been fought, in places that were only names on a map. He had proclaimed stern laws against those who spoke or wrote or published questioning the conduct of the war, and sternly carried them out. He applied justice, recognizing it was injustice. Had he done less, he knew beyond a doubt that, for all her efforts, Augusta would have lost. He had convinced her subjects of certain victory. And so, as far as they were concerned, Westmark had defeated Regia. Torrens had only defeated himself."

The problem I'm having here is that the stuff Torrens did does not seem to be tied to the aristocracy or the monarchy, and the idea that it might have been necessary for victory doesn't seem to be questioned at all. Keller questions it. But when we're given Torrens's certainty, I think we're given too much of the text's certainty with it, and I don't remember what happens with that in The Beggar Queen.

I guess we'll find out next month.
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