Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Myths, Legends, History, and Stories: Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark

In addition to the wonderful panels, fascinating scholarship, and exciting readings, one of the best parts about ICFA is the books.  Not only do you get free books at all of the formal meals, but there is an entire room filled with books for sale, many of which are signed by the authors in attendance in the conference.  Needless to say, it's fantastic.

This year, I planned ahead, packed an extra bag, and flew Southwest, so I wouldn't have to pay an additional checked baggage fee when I brought all my new books back with me.  And then I skipped an entire time-slot worth of programming so I could browse in leisure.  I found a number of wonderful things, including two of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's collections of adult fairy tales, a signed copy of Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman's The Fall of Kings, and some used books by Ursula Le Guin.  I also got a used copy of Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark, which I read in one sitting on the plane ride back to Chicago.

It's a wonderful book, for so many reasons.  I don't want to give away too much of it, because uncovering the details of the society that Jenna lives in is one of the most fascinating things about the novel, but in short, Sister Light, Sister Dark tells the story of Jenna, a girl whose mother died in childbirth and who is taken to live among the women on the mountain who worship the Great Alta.  The novel is Jenna's coming-of-age story.

And while that story is worth reading on its own, what I found most fascinating about the novel was the way that Yolen deliberately calls attention to the connection between history, myth, legend, and story.  Most chapters begin with a section on "The Myth" or "The History," and then continue with a new section called "The Story" that retells the same information from this different perspective.  I have long been fascinated by the way that legends and myths are stories that have some basis in historical fact, but that fact has been lost to the winds of time.  There's a line from a movie somewhere that suggests that "once upon a time" is just the way to start a story when it happened too long ago to remember, but that doesn't mean it's not true.  The structure of Yolen's novel calls attention to this through the very structure of the book, and the subtle distinctions between the different tellings of the same story raise fascinating questions about truth, scholarship, and the construction of history.

That is why this book, though it is directed at readers "ages 13 and up" as the back cover suggests, is interesting to readers of all ages, and particularly, I think, those who engage in scholarly research of some sort.  The way that Yolen depicts the various arguments put forth by scholars to explain the cultural practices of Jenna and her people, while simultaneously providing a narrative account of those very practices, is fascinating and offers not only interesting food for thought, but a helpful reminder that the texts and people that we study actually did live, once upon a time, and that it is up to us to bring the truth of their stories to light.