Thursday, June 02, 2016

Evil Afoot! Grayling's Song by Karen Cushman

"Grayling, come. Attend me now! Her mother's voice!

The mist was clearing elsewhere, but the cottage was still shadowed. Not mist, but... smoke. Too much smoke! Suddenly the roof thatch exploded in flames.

What had happened? Where was Hannah Strong? "Mother!" Grayling screamed. "Come away with me, do!"

Her mother stood at the edge of the clearing--straight and strong--and still. Still? Grayling's mother was never still.

"Witless child, open your eyes and look," her mother said, gesturing toward her feet. They were rooted in the earth. What had been soft skin was as rough and brown as a tree trunk.

An evil force of smoke and shadow is afoot in the land, Hannah Strong's grimoire, her spell book, has been taken. Hannah is a wise woman, whose curative potions and simple spells can fight sickness, but without her book she is unable to save herself from turning inch by inch into a rooted tree, and now all depends on the daughter she has always called "Feeble Wits" to save her and the other magic folk from the evil force afoot. Hannah can only teach Grayling two songs, a "gathering song" to call forth the other "wise folk," and a song that can locate her grimoire and make it sing back to her from wherever it has been taken. She sends Grayling forth with the songs and some herbs and jars with some little magic in them to rally the magic folk to save those of them already rooted in the earth before they are totally transformed to trees.

But Grayling's first night ends badly, with a mouse crawling into her basket while she sleeps and eating from each jar. Suddenly, the mouse she names Pook can speak and shape-shift haphazardly into a goat or a raven, but with nothing left but her mother's songs, Grayling's mission seems to have already failed.

But her gathering song seems to work, as it calls forth a motley crew of wise folk: Auld Nancy, an elderly weather witch who can call forth sunshine or rain--and lightning, which unfortunately she can control not at all, and her lumpen and sulky great-niece Pansy, who claims great powers, but displays none, except to eat most of the little they find to eat. Joining their journey also is an enchantress, Desdemona Cork, whose powers seem to work only on moneyed gentlemen, and a scholarly sorcerer who knows much of magic and little of working it. But Grayling's calling-forth song to the grimoire is answered, and following its song, she leads her grumbling, shambling group through the forest and past hostile villages, as the song of the grimoire grows stronger. Grayling herself begins to come into her own powers, and at last she grasps the secret of the unlikely source of the evil.

In the Newbery-winning Karen Cushman's forthcoming medieval adventure, Grayling's Song (Houghton Mifflin Clarion Books, 2016), the quest is all. Grayling finds the confidence that she can vanquish the forces of fire and smoke, at least for the nonce. Her companions return to their previous lives intact, and she finds her mother freed, her feet once more broad and strong. But Grayling has learned too much on her journey to again become Hannah Strong's handmaiden, and she determines to set forth to fulfill her own powers, in ways yet unknown.

Seasons change, winter's nigh,
Leaves change color, fall, an die.
Everything changes by and by.
Seasons change, and so do I.

As in Cushman's celebrated Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice, the ambiance of the Middle Ages provides the setting for the coming-of-age of a resourceful girl whose personal journey leads her into a new life of her own, while Cushman's colorful and clearly-drawn characters add humor to the masterful storytelling in which the journey, not the destination, is most of the fun for middle readers.

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