Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hild, A Big Book for the New Year

This is where I write.  I watch the birds from here.

Sunrise was at 7:57 am, sunset will be at 4:32 pm.

It's a beautiful day in our neighborhood, today.  The sun's out, the sky's blue, and the little brown birds are flocking at the bird feeder.  There are a dozen  little brown striped and stippled birds, juncos?  wrens?  I don't know, chickadees I recognize.  One of these little guys has eaten so much he doesn't look like he can fly - he's sitting on a blackberry cane, so round he looks like an ornament.

I wish my camera was good enough to capture the sky over the Sound - sometimes it is so dramatic, so otherworldly, it looks like it's been designed by animators rather than by weather.  New Year's Eve was one of those afternoons.  Mid-trip, about 10 minutes into the ride home, the boat slowed and the captain announced that there were orcas on the left side, the north side, of the boat.  Of course, everyone headed over and people made room for all to look out.  I didn't see anything from there, but the couple next to me said, "Look, there they are!  Happy New Year!"  and then the captain said, "They're all around us!"  I got chills and grabbed my stuff, heading off to the back of the boat (it's a ferry so the back at this point was facing Bainbridge) where there's a wider, no back light, view.  There, in a silver wedge of light, were the backs and flukes of many whales, traveling south. I've seen whales a couple of times in the year of riding the ferry, but not like this, rising and falling, looking out and seeing the break of water over and over.

When I couldn't see the orcas any longer, I looked at the sky and it was epic!  That silver wedge of light where the sun cut through the mountains, lighting the ferry's route to Seattle, and a biblical purple, black, roil of clouds on either side of that wedge. The ferries heading past us to Bremerton and BI sparkled and glowed in their passage westward, the rickrack wave of water along the ferry bottoms and the wake a brilliant white  in the darkness.  One of the most amazing rides home I've experienced so far.

One of my very favorite books this year, out of EVERYthing I've read this year, is Hild, by Seattle author Nicola Griffiths.  A big, rollicking, epic book about a young woman named Hild who lives in 7th century Britain,  the story starts when she is 3 years-old, a smart, thoughtful, caring child being raised to be the king's seer. Hild's uncle is the king, so she is in a particularly awkward position; as long as her predictions are correct, as long as everything goes in the king's favor, Hild gets to live.  Fortunately, Hild is well able to read people, landscape, the weather and uses those observations to lead the king to make better decisions.

Hild is based on a real woman, Saint Hild of Whitby, born at the time when Christianity was just beginning to butt up against paganism.  There isn't a lot known about the real Hild, only that she was able to read and eventually became the adviser to statesmen and kings.  Nicola wrote the book to find out how she survived not only her birth as the second child to a widowed mother but the changes coming as the petty kingdoms became literate states.  She studied the history, archeology, poetry, art, and literature available at the time, placing our fictional Hild in a fully realized world of monks, dye vats, sheep, horrific death, season changes, and the ways of the women of the time.  Hild, the book, is more than a re-imagined biography of a person, it is a look into what Hild, the woman, would have seen and done as she tries to keep herself and her people safe in a dangerous time.

Hild is big, well over 500 pages, and filled with descriptions of the world at that time.  The different languages can keep you from reading smoothly for the first pages but you'll soon blithely leap from gutteral Germanic to hushing Welsh in no time.  The advance reading copy I read didn't have a map or an author's note, it didn't have the pronunciation guide, but the finished copy does.  It also includes a glossary and a family tree, something I found very useful.

This is a book that young adults would thoroughly enjoy, if given enough time to read.  It's realistic, and extraordinarily well-written and would be a good suggestion for anyone who loves Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.  Good for STEM and Core Curriculum lists, too, as it is chock-full of history, science, botany, astronomy, geography, and the social lives of small villages.

(Farrar Straus and Giroux.  Available now.  $27.00.  Ages 16+.)

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