Although on the surface it would appear that the following three books are vastly different – a historical novel set in the Philippines, the first in a new fantasy quartet, and a dystopian novel published in 1993, I notice that they all rely heavily upon a coming-of-age ritual for their plots. Today in modern society, we still have coming-of-age rituals be they religious such as a bar mitzvah, or secular such as the transition to high school (made into quite an ordeal with end of primary proms, new uniform shopping, perhaps the purchase of a new phone etc.)
Each culture focussed in the three books has their own coming-of-age ritual central to their community – it marks the turning of children into adults and in all three cases gives them their adult role in the community. Each ritual is incredibly different but they retain similarities in design and all are deemed important by the community – indeed these societies are each bound as a community to the rituals, rules and beliefs that they inherit. And questioning of the rituals, rules or beliefs threatens the community…
Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Gourlay’s latest novel sees her attempt to give voice, with a first person narrative, to the native Filipino’s view of history as she describes a boy on the brink of manhood in a tribal village in 1899. Although she fictionalises her story, this is a rare view of history in this land, seen before only through the eyes of occupying forces or anthropologists. Samkad is about to undergo the ‘cut’, the ceremony that turns him from boy to man and lets him join the warriors of his tribe who are fighting the headhunting enemy.
Samkad’s innocence is apparent immediately. He has never met anyone from outside his tribe, or been beyond the marked territory of the village’s paddy fields, and he also enjoys his time with his friend Luki, a girl who is also desperate to be a warrior, although held back by the view of gendered roles within her tribe. However, his innocence is not seen as a negative, and Gourlay writes intelligently about how he thrives within his community, and the importance of the community’s ‘innocence’ – the fact that they are undisturbed.
However, it takes more than a cut to make a man, and when Samkad’s coming-of-age ceremony is derailed, and a pale-skinned man, an American, arrives, Samkad and the reader learn that experience, not necessarily ritual, is what changes a person.
Gourlay is terrific at describing the landscape of Samkad’s village, from the mountains of rice paddies to the trees that surround them, but mostly at the intricacies of the customs of the tribe, the hierarchical structure of their community, and the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bind them together. Soon, it’s clear that the existential threat to the tribe comes not from enemy headhunters or snakes, but from the Americans, who aren’t as friendly as they first appear when they come bearing sweets as well as guns.
The story is fast-paced and written with an immediacy and visceral quality that immerses the reader in Samkad’s way of life and his emotions. Gourlay tells the story with an immense sensitivity towards the way of life she is describing but also with heat and power. The Americans bring a different kind of knowledge to the tribe – some of which is good and useful, and some of which is highly dangerous. As well as exploring these ideas, Gourlay poses questions about the nature of land ownership and territory, about warfare, and community, about changes that come from within as well as what happens when new people arrive. The story is about culture, belief, loyalty and the meaning of community and is historical fiction at its finest, with a fresh and invigorating outlook. Age 10+. You can buy it here.
Storm Witch by Ellen Renner
Another child facing her rites of passage ritual is Storm in Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. Now 13, she must undertake the Choosing ceremony to see if she will be claimed by one of the Elementals: Air, Water, Earth or Fire, and this Choosing will determine her course in life – her vocation. This is a fantasy novel set in some distant land at an unspecified time, but it’s clear that inspiration has been taken from a rural life – Storm’s village community lives from the land – pots are fired, food is fished or hunted, and cloth is woven from natural product. This is a place and time in which technology hasn’t been harnessed.
In a highly unusual occurrence, Storm isn’t chosen by one Elemental, but three, turning her into a witch, and one whose powers are not understood even by the village Elders, headed here by a matriarch. When the village is under threat from the Drowned Ones, (a separate tribe who live at sea) will Storm be able to harness her powers to save her community and particularly those she loves?
Renner has built her world around the power of the elemental forces of nature, and throughout the novel Storm’s people either harness the power for their own use, or suffer its dangers. This works cleverly, so that fire is a dangerous element with the power to destroy, but also of course with the nurturing power to bring heat and light. Water too is dangerous if combined with wind, but is useful in providing a way of passage to trade, and also for its fish. The reader feels at one with nature too reading the book, as though the sound of the sea is a constant backdrop to village life.
The magical elements are woven naturally into the landscape and don’t feel too fantastical, more a way of life and part of the rituals and beliefs of the society Renner has created. But what stands out most is the authenticity of her characters. Storm is a great teenager – on the cusp of womanhood but still bound into childhood squabbles and fighting, split between the childhood of her younger cousin and yet wanting to be part of the adult conversations, and desperate for adult wisdom and knowledge. She is modern in her outlook – her haste and impatience showing through, but also her loyalty and love. The other characters are fully fleshed too, from Storm’s patient mother to her guide and Elder, Teanu.
This is another community set apart and cut off from others, and so strangers are unusual, and when one arrives he brings excitement and danger. This novel too is fast-paced and powerfully written – and although I am generally not a great fan of fantasy, I remained gripped and bound to Storm’s world. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
This isn’t a new book or even a new edition, but rather was a summer read for our family, and intersected with these other two books so neatly that I couldn’t help but mention it. For those of you new to it, The Giver tells of another community – set in a dystopian future, cut off from the rest of society and indeed from history. It follows a boy called Jonas who is also approaching his ceremony of adulthood – when at 12 the children are assigned the jobs and roles they will play within the community for the rest of their lives. However, Jonas is given a rather different job than the rest of his cohort: he is to be the new Receiver.
This is an unsettling futuristic read about a ‘utopian’ world in which all aspects of pain and suffering have been removed, and fairness rules. Each matched couple is given two children, a boy and a girl, whose own adolescent stirrings are repressed with medication. None of the community has memories, and the elderly and those who don’t fit are ‘released’ with great celebration.
Lowry gradually builds up the reader’s awareness of the world as they progress through the book, so that the reader is more and more unsettled, until the full scale of the ‘utopia’ becomes apparent. When Jonas receives his new job, and starts to be fed memories of what human society used to be like (in order that he can dispel advice and wisdom to the Elders), the reader realises what the community has sacrificed and the path they have chosen, most unwittingly, and the reader’s moral compass kicks in to question which elements make life worthwhile and valuable.
This is a fascinating allegorical book that stimulates questions about how we live, about difference and sameness, about memories and creativity, about beliefs, rituals and community. It’s dark but simply told so that the horrors creep up stealthily. Lowry’s skilfulness in writing is immediately apparent. The prose is disturbingly simple and information is only drip fed until the reader is so immersed with Jonas, so emotionally entangled and engaged that they could not possibly release him without reading to the end.
It’s a powerful and provocative novel and poses many more questions than it answers. Age 11+ years. You can buy it here.