This is the third book that I read for the ‘Once Upon a Time’ challenge hosted by Carl..
I discovered Erin Bow’s ‘Plain Kate’ through Ana’s (from ‘Things Mean a Lot’) review of it. The story looked interesting and the fact that it was based on Russian folklore made me want to read it. Here is what I think
Kate, the ‘Plain Kate’ of the title, lives in a small town with her father. Her father is a wood carver and he has taught Kate much of his art. Though Kate is young and is not even an apprentice, she is better than some of the masters at wood carving. However, as she is very good at it, the town people look at her with suspicion. Some even call her a witch-child. One day a plague kind of fever pays a visit to that little town. Kate’s father gets the fever and soon he is no more. Kate is left an orphan. According to the rules of that time, the guild sends another wood carver who takes over Kate’s father’s business, putting her literally on the streets. Kate moves to a small place near the market, makes small wood carvings and tries to make a living there. She finds a cat in that place and she adopts him and calls him Taggle. Things start getting worse in the town. There is talk of black magic and Kate is increasingly regarded as a witch. There are stories floating down from other places on what happens to witches. Then one day a boat arrives in that town. A pale, white-haired man comes to town to sell some trinkets in the market. He stops by at Kate’s place. He says that his name is Linay. He tells her that he can help her. He can grant her a wish and help her leave the town if she gives him her shadow in return. It seems like a Faustian trade. Kate, initially, declines his offer. But as things get more and more hard for her, she finally says ‘Yes’. Linay gives her some woodcarving tools and other things that she wants. Subconsciously, Kate also yearns for a friend to whom she can talk. And her wishes are realized when she suddenly discovers that her cat Taggle can talk now. One of her well wishers from her town introduces her to the Roamers who are visiting nearby. They are travelling gypsies (Roamers is probably Roma) and they don’t stay in any place for long. They take her in and start treating her as one of their own. One of the young girls there called Drina befriends Kate. As time passes by, Kate notices that her shadow is becoming thinner and thinner. One day she reveals her secret to Drina. She says that she wants her shadow back. Drina says that she will help her.
Well, the story is long after that. But I am going to stop here. Will Kate get back her shadow? What happens when the Roamers discover that she doesn’t have a shadow? Why did Linay want Kate’s shadow? What nefarious plan was he hatching? What adventures do Kate and her talking cat Taggle have? The answers to all these questions can be found if you read the book.
I enjoyed reading ‘Plain Kate’. I think this is the first time I am reading a novel which is based on Russian folklore and I liked the experience. The story brings the medieval era alive (though it is really silent about the time period it is set in, the stories of how women were branded as witches and tortured and how the guilds worked and the strange fever which comes and kills people – these give us an idea of the time period of the story). I loved most of the characters in the story – even Linay (who has a tragic story behind that cunning magician face) and the ghost, the Rusalka that rises out of the fog and brings terrible things with it. The ending was beautiful and perfect – sad and happy in equal measure, though it was mostly sad. I enjoyed reading and learning about the Roamer way of life and loved the wisecracks of the cat Taggle. Taggle was one of the charming characters in the book – beautiful, fearless, funny, wise, loyal and brave. He was almost a dog, though he would have bristled at that suggestion. I also loved the heroine Plain Kate. Plain Kate, or Katerina Svetlana as her full name was, was strong and brave and intelligent and loyal and was an artist at heart. She was anything but plain.
While checking out Erin Bow’s website, I discovered that she was a physicist in CERN before she decided to become a YA novelist. I found that quite fascinating.
I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book
“When you are carving a narrow point, like the tail of this fish, this is a time of danger. The knife may slip. It may follow a grain and spoil the line. There may be a flaw deep in the wood that will snap your work in two. You will want to leave the tail thick and crude; that is safer. A master carver will be brave, and trust the wood. Things will find their shape. Kate, My Star. Lift your knife.”
Have you read ‘Plain Kate’ by Erin Bow? What do you think about it?