Gifts, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Gifts

This book sat around around the house for nearly three months while I reviewed other things, but now the library wants it back.  Why did it sit around?  Because I’m a coward (or, as Samwell Tarly might say, ” a craven”.  Yes, I’ve finally given in and started both reading and following A Game of Thrones, even though it drives me bonkers to read it.  You can blame my husband).

Anyways – I digress.

My point is that I am somewhat in awe of Ursula K. Le Guin.  She is a legend in my own mind: submitted her first story for publication at age 11 (it was rejected, but clearly she persevered), a Fulbright scholar, multiple winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as the Newbery – and this is just the tip of the iceberg of her accolades and honours.

More impressively (I think), she is unafraid to be provocative.  I think the National Book Foundation said it well in their 2014 write-up when they awarded her the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

Le Guin’s fully imagined worlds challenge readers to consider profound philosophical and existential questions about gender, race, the environment, and society. Her boldly experimental and critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and children’s books, written in elegant prose, are popular with millions of readers around the world.

And, lest you think her energy is confined to provoking with the written word, take a look at her incendiary acceptance speech, which reportedly had all of the attendees cheering (with the exception of Amazon, no surprise).

Wait – did they say “profound philosophical and existential questions“?  How would an author incorporate those into a children’s book?

I am so glad you (i.e. me) asked.

Gifts is not a book I was looking for.  I voraciously read the Earthsea series when I was around 13, but things got a bit too heavy for me and I stopped after Tehanu.  In my mind, Le Guin was a children’s author, and so I didn’t even think to look for her books when I was older and reading other things.  Also, I generally skipped the Science Fiction section in the library (I’m more of a Fantasy person).  So when I picked up Gifts, I hadn’t read Le Guin in a very long time and was a little unsure of what to expect.  The book had such an eerie cover that it seemed like it was going to be full of dire things and unhappiness, right from the start.  And I am rarely in the mood to read dire, unhappy books.

Well, it’s definitely dire and unhappy.  I mean, there are golden moments, but they are only moments.  For the most part, the book is, well, kind of like its cover: mostly grey, with a bit of fire (but not the cozy warm kind) and in the distance, a couple holding hands.  The latter could be a spot of sweetness but – what with the grey and fire and all – it’s hard to say if they are having a romantic walk or fleeing something.  So even the golden moment is maybe not so golden.

(SPOILERS) Gifts is told by Orrec, a young boy-man, eldest son of a clan leader in the Upland hills, where clans (and their serfs) are bound together by the powers (or gifts) of their leading families.  Orrec’s family has the power to undo things – to destroy things by reducing them to their essential elements (for instance, a puppy into a fleshy mess).  His closest friend, Gry, and her family can call animals – not especially useful for attack or defense but very important when hunting.  The various families – with powers ranging from terrifying to tame – share the Uplands in an uneasy truce, pushing for control over land, livestock, and weaker families (such as Gry’s).  You would think that with all these important gifts, the book would be full of Knights and tourneys and noble wars.  But the Uplands are poor lands where people, despite their powers, live a grubby, hungry, humble life.  No minstrel songs and illuminated manuscripts here!  The clan leaders bend to the plow along with their serfs, and suffer through cold and hungry winters when harvest and hunting are poor.

Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it?  It’s just the start.

Although Orrec and Gry are the heirs to their family titles, powers, and lands (such as they are) in the Upland, both have decided they want nothing whatsoever to do with their powers.  Gry refuses to call animals to be killed and Orrec binds his eyes with a cloth so that he can no longer see and, therefore, no longer undo.  In doing so, they call into question not only their powers but also the balancing of powers and families that allows the Uplanders to live without killing one another.  The misfits befriend an outsider – a Lowlander – who mocks them and their “powers” and who appears only to notice their lack of sophistication.  When he is gone, the two have a different view of their world and – after a power struggle ending in tragedy – decide to leave it together for the Lowlands and a new future.

Sounds heavy, doesn’t it?  And I haven’t even mentioned family tensions, Uplander skirmishes, and creepy deaths (of which there are a few).  I was kind of glad when the book was done and put it aside for something “better”.

But then scenes from the book would pop, unbidden, into my thoughts.  I kept thinking things like, “Isn’t it interesting how Le Guin created a dichotomy between “civilization” and grubby huts, but wrote the book from the point of view of the grubby hut people?” and “But wait, Orrec and Gry leave the Uplands and the story is being told in retrospective, so Orrec is also aware that the Uplands were grubby huts, so does that mean something?”, and “If Orrec and Gry have gifts, but the Lowlands have writing and cities and money and trade, who has the power?”, and “What is the nature of power anyhow?  What is it that makes the gifts powerful and that makes the money powerful?”, and, most importantly, “What happened next to Orrec and Gry?”

If you think that I am trying too hard to come up with “profound philosophical and existential questions”, you are only partially correct.  I really did wonder all of those things after reading Gifts, only not as pompously.  The good news is that Gifts is the first book of a series!  So if I can hunt them down at the library, I’ll be able to find out what happens to Orrec and Gry – and answer at least one of my questions.

Reading Ages: 12-16.  The language is deceptively simple, but the concepts are big ones and bear reading by older teens.  I am pretty sure I didn’t understand the full depth of the Earthsea series when I was 13…come to think of it, I should probably reread Earthsea.

Rating: B.  I confess, I didn’t find it as immediately gripping as other books that I’ve read (including Wizard of Earthsea), but it continues to resurface in my thoughts.  I think that I’m not naturally inclined to be philosophical.

Extra! Extra!: A lovely long interview with WIRED, for Le Guin lovers.