The Mask that Sang (2016), by Susan Currie

This review was first published in a shorter version in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

The Mask that Sang (2016)


The Mask that Sang opens with Cass running from bullies, only to come home to learn that her mother had been fired from her sketchy job at a diner for standing up for another girl against the bullying boss. While suggests a message about bullying being endemic, the story is really about how Cass discovers her Native heritage.

Cass’s mother, Denise, has “been in over twenty foster homes” since she was given up by her mother at birth (10); as teen mother herself, she chose not to make that decision, and has raised Cass in a loving emotional security that transcends their poverty. When her dead mother’s lawyers track Denise down, she is adamant that she will have nothing to do with the house and money she has been left. Cass, however, does not carry the same emotional baggage, and talks her mother into accepting the legacy: the home and financial security Cass has always dreamed of. Wrapped up in tissue in one of the drawers, calling to her with a “mischievous purr” was an Iroquios false-face mask. The mask is responsible for the soft voices Cass has been hearing: “The hum was more like a song now … Maybe it was a voice in the wind, maybe it was several voices” (22) telling her how happy she will be in the house, coaxing her towards the drawer to be discovered.

The mask sings to her; it hums in approval when she stands up for a Native classmate, Degan Hill; it “vibrated with regret, with sorrow” (56) when she inadvertently hurts him; it gives her strength to stand up for what she knows is right. Befriending Degan brings Cass into the lives of his Native family, where she learns the stories of false face masks, and their power. When her mother unknowingly sells it with other unwanted household items, Cass and Degan struggle to retrieve it, first from a pawn shop, then from its purchaser, and ultimately from the school bully, Ellis, who turns out (stereotypically) to be dealing with issues of his own.

Despite the trope of the privileged-yet-bullied bully, the ingenuity of Cass and Degan, and their strength in standing up to Ellis’s father racism and illogical position vis-à-vis the mask, gives readers a sense both of the powerlessness of the child against unreasonable adults and the need to stand for what you believe in regardless. In a rather simplistic and idealized dénouement, their strength gives the abused Ellis strength; he returns the mask to its rightful home, and “generations of voices sang that it was home at last” (185).

Its rightful home, of course, is with someone from the Cayuga Nation, where it was created. That the mask sings to Cass is the first obvious clue. The method of delivery of the truth of Cass’s heritage, rather like Denise’s fortuitous inheritance, is rather contrived. A letter that had been left to Denise—which she threw out but Cass rescued—tells the story of Denise’s mother, a Cayuga girl, neglected by her widowed father and sent to Residential school, who (like Denise) chose better for her infant daughter. The letter itself is little more than a narrative list of all possible injuries experienced by Native children in care of the government, and reads more like an outline from a history lesson than a letter from a caring nurse. After she gives up her baby, Denise’s mother “traveled in search of answers, working as she went … she visited other countries and sought out quiet, holy places. She learned to meditate. She studied about great religions, and explored what it felt like to practice them. When she finally came home, she was ready to look at her own traditions…” (174). This passage, especially, rang false for me. I could not reconcile the previous description of her treatment with the resources necessary for such travel and learning, “working as she went” notwithstanding.

What I find troubling is that the Turtle Island Healing Centre that Denise’s fictional mother founded does possibly exist. There is a Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (although that seems an unlikely candidate), and Turtle Island Healing and Wellness, part of the Turtle Island Native Network online, is a Canadian organization. As “Turtle Island” is a term for the world in some First Nations’ creation myths (significantly, for this story, Iroquois), it is also possible that the author has created a generic title for a Native healing centre. If the story of Denise’s mother is based on the founder of the Canadian program, on the other hand, a more careful description of her past—and perhaps an afterword explaining the historical reality—would be greatly helpful. As it stands, the lecturing tone of the historical information overshadows the delightful story of Cass’s life, and we are left wanting.

Book of a Thousand Days (2007), by Shannon Hale

Hale - book“Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul” (25).

Dashti is a Mucker, a peasant from the steppes who, orphaned, seeks work in the city. She pledges herself to Lady Saren, and by choice is condemned with her lady to a seven-year imprisonment, walled up in a tower stocked with food but with only a flapped opening through which to jettison their waste. Lady Saren’s crime? In traditional narrative fashion, she refuses to participate in an arranged marriage, having promised herself to a younger, kinder man. While partaking of this trope, Book of a Thousand Days nonetheless has much that is original; Shannon Hale once again shows herself more than capable of constructing a fictional world that is both unique and internally consistent.

The Muckers’ tradition involves healing through song, a talent Dashti has been taught by her mother. When her abilities are discovered, she is taught to read and write in order to be trained as the condemned Lady Saren’s handmaiden. The story unfolds through Dashti’s diary, kept as a record of “our seven years in a tower and out adventures thereafter” (epigram). Much of the narrative is initially devoted to learning how Dashti reconciles the practicalities of imprisonment with her understanding of the duties of a handmaiden; her backstory is slowly revealed through her musings about Saren and her reflections on their predicament.

Saren is weak, both physically and emotionally, and Dashti has to be strong for them both while remaining subservient, a balance which becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Saren refuses to marry Lord Kharsan not on principle, but out of fear; the young Khan Tegus, with whom she had been exchanging letters, is a safer man to tie herself to. On some level, though, she is afraid of him as well, and insists that Dashti impersonate her when Khan Tegus comes to see if he can garner their release. Lord Kharsan visits, too, and Dashti immediately understands Saren’s fear. He is more than intimidating: he is consummately evil, revelling in their fear and promising pain and even death should Saren become his. Dashti has to revisit her assessment of Saren’s choices.

Not unexpectedly, Dashti’s impersonation of Saren plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the novel, but to say more would lessen readers’ enjoyment. We know the girls escape; they then make their way to Khan Tegus’s city, and eventually (necessarily) come to his notice. How this all unfolds matters far less than how Hale presents her characters. Dashti’s voice is believable not only for its balance of intelligence with folk wisdom, but also in its consistency: rather, in its carefully calibrated development, as Dashti learns the ways of the gentry and where her meager power can best be exercised. As she learns to navigate her new world, her unshakable sense of self is strengthened; even in her fear, she knows who she is and refuses to behave elsewise. Saren, too, undergoes change; Dashti’s songs finally help her heal, giving her the strength in turn to help Dashti in her need. The hierarchy of mistress and maid blurs, and Saren admits: “Dashti is my sister. … we spent nearly three years locked in a tower and when we came out it was as if we were … being born anew” (296-7). Dashti, too, recognizes Saren’s development:

I’d seen my lady begin to change … but never until that moment had she looked like I thought gentry should. Like anyone should. More than a thousand days we’ve been together, more than a thousand songs I’ve sung for her, and only now, I think, do I see Saren truly begin to heal. (297-8)

Saren’s healing, and Dashti’s growing awareness of her own strengths, have forged a sisterhood out their at-times tenuous relationship. They have glimpsed each others’ souls, a source of solace and healing for both.

Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955), by Phyllis A. Whitney

Whitney-SkyeAs a teen, I read most of Phyllis A. Whitney’s 20 “Young Adult Mystery” novels. As they were written between 1949 and 1977, it is not surprising that the notion of “young adult” (YA) has changed somewhat. What is surprising is that the values expressed in these novels—while somewhat dated in terms of gender biases—still hold strong. The focus is on the teen protagonists’ relationships with others: family, friends, relatives, strangers. I remember as a young reader being a bit upset that there wasn’t a bit more romance between the protagonist and the key male accomplice (when there was one, which was not by any means always). Rereading Mystery on the Isle of Skye as an adult, I was pleasingly impressed by the solid social values the novel adheres to. This is not to say that the characters are especially well behaved; in fact, the social and emotional drive stems from the adolescent conflict between adherence to adult social regulations and the need to become an independent being—just as teen and YA novels do today.

Mystery on the Isle of Skye opens with orphaned Cathy MacLeod leaving the beloved grandmother who has raised her, but who has been hospitalized with a serious illness. Cathy is not fond of the rather curmudgeonly aunt who is taking her in, and uncertain of the garrulous uncle and his family who take her on their trip to Scotland, a trip Cathy had anticipated taking with her grandmother. Cathy takes with her a carry-on bag full of mystery presents form her grandmother (which of course we would not be permitted to do with today’s travel regulations). The presents are all marked with the time they should be opening, and Cathy—like the reader—wonders home her grandmother could know what would happen. It turns out that Skye is not so large a place, and the people Cathy should meet, and the places she should visit, were bound to happen. The mystery still remains, though: what did her grandmother mean by writing that “these separate puzzles add up to a surprise which you won’t be able to see unless all the parts are in place” (23).

Travelling over Skye, meeting the friends and relatives her grandmother had left behind, Cathy learns a great deal about her cultural heritage as well as her extended family. This connection is artfully enhanced by Whitney’s repeated allusions to the well-known Scottish lay “The Skye Boat Song” and the subtle reference to the relatively unknown, anonymous “The Canadian Boat Song”written in the early 1800s by Scottish immigrants to the New World:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas —
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides (144).

The mysterious events that Cathy’s grandmother had anticipated come to pass, as readers had hoped. It is to Whitney’s credit that however hard we might have desired the final outcome, the story maintained a sufficient level of doubt to keep us interested to the end.

And, in reference to the temporal specificity of the books, here is the cover of The Mystery of the Black Diamond (Whitney-Diamonds1954, reissued in 1974). Love the bell-bottoms!

The Sower of Tales (2001), by Rachna Gilmore

Gilmore-SowerI have recently given a guest lecture on Children’s Literature of the South Asian diaspora, and I closed with a discussion of Rachna Gilmore’s The Sower of Tales. The class I spoke to was about to begin an investigation of Salmon Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), focusing on its metafictive elements, and Sower of Tales seemed to me to be a perfect text to launch them into the more complex metaphors that Rushdie employs.

The Sower of Tales presents a similar concept—the need for stories in our lives, the death of the imagination equated with the death of happiness—but to a younger, less intellectually mature readership. By this I do not intend to denigrate Sower of Tales; there is absolutely a place for both expressions of this theme within the corpus.

The metaphor that Sower of Tales presents is that of stories as a gift from the Sower, grown bi-weekly on plants scattered about the land. The Gatherer is responsible for choosing an appropriate “story pod” for the evening Talemeet for his or her village. The ripe pods give off a hum, and a talented Gatherer can tell from the hum what tone of story is therein contained. Our protagonist, Calantha, shows great promise as a Gatherer, but is too young yet to apprentice. Nonetheless, when tragedy strikes and new story pods no longer sprout, Calantha is chosen to make the dangerous journey to seek the Sower of Tales, to help right the imbalance in the world that has caused the blight.

When she reaches her destination, she is harrowed to find that the answers are not readily available. The Sower of Tales is losing her power, and can no longer heal herself: she needs Calantha to make another, more dangerous, journey. Calantha learns that an evil sorcerer has twisted the Essences, knotted the winds so that the new seeds that rise out of opened pods, up to the Sower of Tales, are diverted to the neighbouring kingdom. The significance of this is that in Gilmore’s fantasy world, the stories are power, as much as they are a life-force, and the source of culture and tradition.

The Healer Theora tells Calantha that “the Essence of the story pods is tied to the very fabric of our beings” (136), and the Sower of Tales, telling her how story pods first came into being, tells her:

Tales grow, with a life of their own. Words and ideas are like seeds. … the Essence of the story pods comes from the oldest and most powerful of all Essences—the life-spark, the Essence of creation itself. … And so, over time, the Essence of the tales enmeshed and interwove with all the other Essences linked to that life-spark, strengthening them, too—strengthening unity and love, joy and creativity and hope. (231-33).

The corollary is that without the story pods, the world will be blanketed in despair, like the poisoning of the Rushdie’s Sea of Stories… In the final scenes, in a flash of insight, Calantha understands:

The Plainsfolk must, they must learn to tell the tales. Tales from the story pods, yes, but more—they must also learn to tell their own tales. Mend their own hope, stoke their own strength. Oh, they must learn to tell their own tales to fuel their own joy and delight … And when the story pods returned—if the story pods returned—they must still keep telling their tales. That was how the tales would be saved. It was the only way the tales would be saved. (416)

The Sower of Tales can be seen as representing the birth of an oral tradition: stories are no longer given to the people by magical beings, but now must be created by the people, for the people: humanity in Gilmore’s fantasy world has now taken responsibility for its own happiness or despair, its own future narrative.