Listening to the rustling of the night wind
Stepping out of our usual haunt, the Beamers gathered ahead of the raindrops at The Fine Grind coffee bar to discuss our latest find, The Hum and the Shiver, a fantasy written by Alex Bledsoe. Set in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, in a little town called Needsville with a lot of big secrets, it is centered around a returning war hero who is not what she seems to be and might not be what she thinks she is.
Home is the Hunter
Bronwyn Hyatt, wounded, captured, rescued in Iraq, returns home carrying a lot of burdens, both the physical from wounds to her leg and arm, and the psychological from her ambivalence about her heritage as a First Daughter of the Tufa people. Who the Tufa are is a mystery that the book slowly, if not completely, reveals. They are the fairy folk of Celtic legend, the Tuatha De Danaan. Not a race of cute leprechauns, the Tufa were once treated as gods, but, blown by the night wind, they (or some part of them) departed the “Green Country” and wound up in Tennessee. But, they still maintain some power, linked to both their bloodlines and their music.
Bronwyn, prodigal daughter, is forced with deciding how to recover her strength by staying in Cloud County, TN but not lose her autonomy by having to follow tradition (take over as a First Daughter from her mother, marry a Tufa, bear a daughter, who in turn will …). The novel follows Bronwyn coming to terms with her acceptance of Tufa life, her setting her terms for how the Tufa must change in the face of fading bloodlines and intermarriage with humans, and her decision on how to handle her relationships (old and new).
Hero for a New Generation?
Kathy asked us all outright if we liked Bronwyn as a character. She is forcefully drawn (enough so that Alan thought at first that the author was a woman, given his sure handling of strong female characters), but one effect of her personal force is to make her seem a bit egocentric. Partly that is a result of the Tufa heritage, so that Bronwyn’s claim to be able to seduce a given male if she chooses is built around the fairy glamour that in legend often ensnares the unwary mortal. Her brother, Kell, was portrayed as being socially shy at college to avoid picking up unwarranted love affairs, and her ex-boyfriend Dwayne was notorious for abusing same.
Nick was not so sure that Bronwyn was playing by the rules, though, since she does declare at the end of the novel that she will bear a daughter to a Tufa teenager while also marrying a human preacher, Craig Chess. Most of us were withholding judgment as Rev. Chess did seem to know somewhat of what he was getting into, but all of us were interesting in seeing just how those scenes would play out.
Lest Ye Be Judged
Bronwyn also forms the moral heart of the book, with her resolution to become active in Tufa society being triggered by her need to bring her ex, Dwayne, to justice for killing Kell. We debated the terms of that decision, since, as I pointed out, the idea that Bronwyn works from, that there is no sanctity of life, that sometimes there are people “that just need killing”, is self-contradictory. If sanctity is removed, then Dwayne may be dangerous, but his actions are not morally wrong, so there is no reason to become angry and seek vengeance. Eileen felt that Dwayne’s danger to the community was reason enough, on the grounds that one less Dwayne was a better outcome than losing several other Tufa.
Kathy observed that the issue of capital punishment relied on being able to judge just who was worthy of life and who of death, a very heavy burden that usually was shared communally. Merrie noted that in Bronwyn’s case, the execution of the judgment was not hers, as she only brought Dwayne to trial by the night wind. When his own song, a song he had long denied and suppressed, failed to save him, he plummeted to his death. (And the coincidence of that death also involving the hated state trooper Bob Pafford was something Robin saw coming and at which most of us shook our heads.)
Can’t Go Home Again?
Bronwyn fitting back into Tufa life was also a topic of a lot of our discussion, particularly around the ways in which communities preserve traditions and also become trapped by them. Donna pointed out how the Tufa were undergoing the American immigrant experience in which the first generation remembers, the second tries to forget and assimilate, then the third tries to recover and restore. Along the way, traditions, rituals, legacies do change.
That process comes out in the novel. One scene in particular, where Carolanne, a Tufa who is not “full blooded”, tries to join the First Daughters, stuck out. Even though Bronwyn defends Carolanne, the rest turn their back on her and force her to leave, in spite of her having mastered much of their rituals and secret hand language.
The issue of full blood was problematic in the book, as Bronwyn’s chosen mate, Terry-Joe, is not full-blooded, nor were most of the Tufa, intermarriage being a necessary and unavoidable consequence of a small group in a world full of outsiders. Don Swayback starts the novel unaware of his Tufa blood but is drawn into the community by his job as a reporter and (more importantly) by his music, and he quickly (too quickly for Liz) wins his wings (very literally). So, who is, who is not Tufa? The question is not really answered, but it is raised and the answer is likely to be different now that Bronwyn is back.
Just a Stone’s Throw, Down the Road a-Piece
Bledsoe does a good job at filling in the details of his Tufa universe, as Alan commented, making their town and their lives seem very real. Many of us also wished that the book came with a soundtrack so that we could hear the music that they played (a bit of which Alan did post on our blog site with the trailer for the novel). And an illustration of the painting that Craig and Don both go to see, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (actually in the Tate Gallery of London), would also have been nice, I thought.
A lot of mysteries remain, though, such as the Tufa clan structure, modeled on the split Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Scottish folklore and led by two very different individuals, old and mean Rockhouse Hicks and young and not-too-innocent Mandalay Harris. Donna thought that reincarnation plays some part in Tufa lineages, as Mandalay is described as having an old soul in a 10-year-old body. Nick wondered if the Rockhouse (male)/Mandalay (female) gender difference was a yin/yang, patriarchal/matriarchal division. But, we lacked evidence to argue for or against.
One mystery that nagged at me, the actual leg and arm (left or right?) in which Bronwyn was wounded, turned out to be a mystery to all of us. A query to the author has been sent. [Note: In a reply, Mr. Bledsoe said, “I think…and you have to remember, I wrote this book several years ago, so things are a little blurry–that it was her right leg, at least in my head.” ]
We Gather Together to Sing the Book’s Praises
One area that the book also touches on, the religion of the Tufa, is not much explored even as it tantalizes Craig Chess. Bledsoe has added some details in a short story published on Tor.com, “Shall We Gather”, in which the Rev. Chess goes to comfort a dying parishioner, a non-Tufa resident of Cloud County, and is given a task by Mandalay to ask the dying man, who has a foot in both human and Tufa life, if the Tufa go up to face the same God as the humans. The answer that Craig gets comes from a very surprising source.
Overall, The Hum and the Shiver won good marks from the Beamers, with 7s and 8s being awarded. A number of us are likely to read the sequel Wisp of a Thing and the upcoming Long Black Curl. Reading more of an author’s work is possibly the highest praise that the Beamers, a group busy with many (too many?) books to read, can bestow.