I’ve been reading a whole lot lately, especially in young adult fiction. I always feel a bit guilty when I give one part of the collection preference, so I decided to challenge myself to read a book from our middle-grade section to give myself a break from high school. I am so glad that I broke the YA habit (for now), and picked up a beautiful book called Plain Kate by Canadian author Erin Bow. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while; I think I had even checked it out before and ended up returning it unread because I had so many other great library books at the time. I ended up loving Plain Kate, even more than the slew of other very enjoyable books that have been taking up most of my reading time. It was one of those stories that I know I will remember for a long time, and whose characters will stick with me indefinitely.
Kate is the daughter of a master carver, and lives in a small town where everyone knows her family. She learns to carve when she is very young, and is about to apprentice with her father when he suddenly dies of a terrible sickness sweeping the village. Unfortunately, Kate’s talents–and her looks, although some say she’s plain as a stick–make her a target for suspicion. Her eyes are two different colours, and she is such an incredible carver that most of her fellow villagers begin to suspect that she is a witch and call her “witch-blade”. Her neighbours are very superstitious; Kate, and her father before her, have made much of their living carving objarka, protective talismans to draw good or ward off evil. After Kate’s father dies, she is utterly alone and has lost her teacher and her ability to become a master of her trade.
After the death of her father, his shop (Kate’s home) is taken from her by law by another “master” carver. Although his work is clumsy and nowhere near matches Kate’s own, she must leave her home. She goes to live at her father’s stall at the market, and discovers three abandoned kittens which she raises to adulthood. The most tame, Taggle, remains her loyal companion.
Everything changes for Kate when a man named Linay comes to town. He establishes himself quickly in the marketplace, capitalizing on the villagers’ fears and selling charms to ward off evil and illness. Linay watches Kate’s desperate attempts to survive with fewer and fewer jobs. Several times, he uses his magic to help Kate obtain food, but in doing so makes her look even more like a witch. More and more quickly, Kate’s neighbours are ready to blame her for any misfortune in the village. Finally, Kate is attacked while she is sleeping, and Linay gives her a choice: burn for witchcraft, or let him grant her a wish in exchange for her shadow. Kate, destitute, accepts Linay’s offer: in exchange for a bit of food, survival gear, and her “heart’s wish,” she gives Linay her shadow. Kate’s heart’s wish is companionship, so Linay grants Taggle the power of speech. Talking cat and girl strike out to find a way to live. With the help of Niki the baker, the only remaining villager who shows Kate any kindness, Kate and Taggle join a nomadic people that all of the villages shun: the Roamers.
Kate soon realizes that not having a shadow is a dangerous curse which she must hide from the Roamers, and begs Taggle not to reveal himself, worried that he will look like a witch’s familiar. When Kate realizes Linay’s true and sinister plan for her shadow, she must journey to get it back and to stop Linay from killing an entire village to avenge the death of his sister, who was burned by those very villagers as a witch.
Plain Kate is a ghost story, a fairy tale, and an epic fantasy. Erin Bow is a poet, and her writing is so beautiful and simple that it makes for a perfectly paced and lyrically written story. One of the reasons that I loved the book so much was its focus on a lonely heroine and a journey that begins with survival, but ends with an incredibly selfless act. This story is full of danger, adventure, and heartbreak: I cried for Kate and Taggle several times during the book. The bravery of two orphans makes for sad and wonderful characters; this book reminded me a bit of Sabriel, another of my favourites. In all of its seriousness, however, there were moments of humour. In normal cat fashion, Taggle could be quite funny at times. Although talking animals have a wonderful place in literature, I haven’t met a talking cat that I’ve loved as much as Taggle in a long time.
Highly recommended for ages 10 and up, especially for lovers of fantasy, adventure, and great characters.