Friday, May 23, 2008

Feminist Romance From Far-Away Lands

Faced with the many coy heroines gracing the covers of American and English historical fiction, it‘s tough to find a likable character in a believable predicament that isn’t totally horrifying to a feminist like me. Fortunately, Meghan Nuttall Sayres is equal to the challenge, transporting the reader to 19th century Iran with Anahita’s Woven Riddle (ages 12-14).

Anahita is a nomadic weaver faced with the possibility of an arranged marriage to the khan, the chieftain who represents their tribe in the Iranian government.. Not only is the kahn much older than Anahita, he has already lost three wives. Risking the khan’s retribution, Anahita’s father allows her to pose a contest: whoever guesses the riddle woven into her wedding carpet, proving he shares her love of riddles, will be her husband. As her tribe traverses their migratory route through Persia, the contest attracts a variety of potential suitors: the boy-next-door shepherd Dariyoush, the schoolteacher Reza, a mysterious man from the market (who turns out to be a prince, naturally), and a few other surprising contenstants. In addition to all this romantic attention, Anahita’s contest stirs up political controversy: it is considered quite audacious of a woman to attempt to decide her own fate, especially when her decisions affect the whole tribe. The wedding riddle contest becomes but a surface issue, underlaid by Anahita’s growing understanding of the balance between her own interests and those of the tribe. It is this maturation of thought that puts this novel above other well-researched, engaging historical fiction. It has romantic sparks, suspense, and culture a-plenty, without forfeiting character depth.

Anahita herself is a very strong character: progressive without being radical and strong without being overbearing. She wants to work with the dyemaster and go to school, helps orchestrate a Salvation Army-like clothing cart, questions the second class citizenship of women, and she’s beautiful, too. She learns from all of her mistakes and mends all of the relationships her contest compromises. She’s everything I thought I wanted in a heroine, yet I find her merely likable, not lovable. It may be that I prefer what Anahita represents to her actual character. She is like Odysseus’s Penelope, that grand poobah of weaving ruses: a great woman, but a bit more iconic than realistic.

Coupled with the distancing third person perspective, this iconic role may make Anahita difficult for teens to relate to. Still, she is a strong female character who remains true to herself without becoming self-absorbed — an admirable feat, and one I would like to see more in YA literature.

As is not always the case with romance stories, the other major characters are reasonably well developed. Unfortunately the dialogue between them is too formal at times to be realistic for any time or place. Even with these style snags, it is an enjoyable read. The romantic drama is complicated and never devolves to fluff, the characters are fully developed and likable, and the incredibly detailed, well-researched cultural background itself is a pure wonder.

For more historical fiction set in far foreign lands:

Fletcher: Alphabet of Dreams (B.C. Persia, ages 12-14)

Grey: Leonardo’s Shadow (Renaissance Italy, ages 12-14)

Hoffman: Incantation (16th century Spain, ages 12-14)

Smith: Elephant Run (WWII England/Burma, ages 9-11)

Venkatraman: Climbing the Stairs (British India, ages 12-14)

For more historical fiction (somewhat) closer to home:

Anderson: Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol 1: The Pox Party (Revolutionary America, ages 15-18)

Avi: Seer of Shadows (19th century New York, ages 9-11); Crispin (14th century England, ages 9-11); True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1832 America/England/cross-Atlantic)

Rinaldi: Juliet’s Moon (Civil War America, ages 9-11); The Redheaded Princess (Elizabethan England, ages 9-11)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, has definitely sparked my interest in this book and the other suggested ones you posted.