A lot of people seem to like it when things fall neatly into categories. For me alphabetizing is about as far as I like to go. So reading Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow was a real treat. For a YA book it is serious, even grim. It has magic, but not of a type I had ever read about before. It is steeped in time and place, but it is set in a world almost without description. I liked it a lot.
The book is set in a Native American landscape seeming in the West, but the time and place are up for grabs. As I said earlier though, Ms. Bow does a great job of making the world come alive with quotidian details and descriptions that are spot on, but firmly tied to a cultural base. The story is about a girl on the cusp of womanhood named Otter, and her close friends, Kestral, and a boy named Cricket. Without giving away a lot of the plot I can say that Otter’s mother, Willow is the tribe’s Binder. In a wonderful system (I hate to call it that but it works) the many wild and dangerous spirits of the world, and the spirits of the dead are kept at bay by these women of power who use yarn to make patterns and tie knots that are suffused with magic and power. One of the most important roles of the binder is to bind the tribe's dead as they are taken to their burial platforms, so that they do not return as dangerous spirits. Unfortunately I can say very little else about this fascinating practice because the lore of it is , no pun intended, so tied up with the plot that it would spoil the surprises.
Now I enjoyed this book a great deal, but it is one of the more frustrating books that I have had to review because so much of the story revolves around a few plot twists that I feel like I cannot reveal, so much of the story I cannot divulge. Just let me say that Cricket and Kestral find their place in the tribe, and they help Otter on her quest to find her role in the world, and her destiny. The story is tense, and Ms. Bow does a wonderful job in making us feel the huge expanse of the world outside the narrow confines of the tribe. Unless I am mistaken the word tribe is never used in the book, but I use it here for brevity's sake. There are few characters in this book, but they are full and complex, and I came to care for them all.
One of the books most admirable features is that way that Ms. Bow never slips out of the character of the world she has so fully created. Every simile, every metaphor, and the language itself, is tied to the characters and their lives with total verisimilitude, and for all of that, the languages sings. It is quite an achievement, as well she shows us the comforts in the smallness of the tribe and the fear of the unknown world that lies beyond, but as the story progresses some of that is subverted as the wide world outside unfolds. It sounds like a contradiction, but it's more like a revelation.
I know that a lot of this review is vague and I have been very skimpy with the plot, but this is the kind of book that demands this kind of treatment. I could blab on and on for days about it once you have read it, but to do so beforehand would ruin this small gem. So just trust me this time, and read Sorrow's Knot.