Saturday, July 24, 2010
What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Tatsinda
Tatsinda is a middle grade fantasy by Elizabeth Enright, published in 1963. I still have my childhood copy with the enchanting illustrations by Irene Haas--pen and ink drawings, rich with texture and crosshatching. It was reissued in 1991 with new illustrations by Katie Thamer Treherne.
This is not what I expected to say ... but honestly, as I reread Tatsinda, there are some things that just don’t work for me any more:
• It starts out slo-o-o-ow. Lots of description and back story. I probably skipped a lot of it. At eight, I was not a fan of long descriptive passages (confession: I’m still not).
• There’s a distant, grown-up narrative style. Lots of telling. I don’t mind this too much--but I hope we get to some action and dialogue soon.
• For some reason, Enright gave all the characters names that began with TA. This is considered a no-no today, and for good reason. I was forever having to check back--was Tagador the king and Tataspan the queen?--or was it the other way ’round?
• The problem that starts the book isn’t something kids are likely to relate to. Tatsinda’s foster mother is obsessed with the fact that she and her husband are getting older. Nobody’s going to marry Tatsinda with that weird hair; someday she might be lonely. This is not Tatsinda’s problem. She’s only ten.
Okay, right now, I’m not too impressed with my child-self’s taste in literature. Why did I like it? Maybe it was because…
• The lyrical fairy-tale quality of the story is appealing.
• I love Irene Haas’ evocative illustrations.
• It’s got exotic animals! The small racing tidwell that looks like a squirrel and purrs like a kitten. The “shy, wiry timbertock that skipped along the treetops”. The graceful timtik (“…every Tatran child had a timtik to ride to school on. Some of them had two.”). Man, I wanted a timtik to ride to school!
• Tatsinda is an interesting heroine. The Tatrajanni have “glittering white hair like snow crystals” and “cool, greenish-blue eyes”--but not foster child Tatsinda. With her golden hair and brown eyes, she is considered a freak. But she’s really excellent at weaving totles (the luxurious rugs with which Tatrajanni cover their floors). This is classic--a protagonist who is somehow different, set apart from the others, but has a unique talent.
Tatsinda wonders why Tanda-nan, the wise woman, lives in a bare cave with no totle--so she weaves her one. Tanda-nan is so touched, she promises her the gift of a little magic some day. This little scene is masterful: by showing Tatsinda performing an act of kindness without thought of personal gain, Enright instantly engages the reader's sympathy. The book doesn't devote much space to characterization, but what is there is spot-on.
There are giants outside the kingdom. There’s also a visiting owl--a cranky one, named Skoodoon. He broke his wing, so he’s got to stay in Tatrajan until it mends. A whole chapter about giants and Skoodoon. Not a word about Tatsinda!
Yikes--eight years passed while we were reading about giants! Suddenly, Tatsinda’s eighteen. Her parents are dead. She loves Prince Tackatan, but he's betrothed to someone else. Tanda-nan gives her a spell--she’s to make the prince a totle for his 18th birthday, weaving in three hairs from her own head. At the party, along comes a giant. He grabs Tatsinda, wanting to take her to his niece as a “lively dolly”. As he carries her off, Prince Tackatan shouts, ‘I will find a way to save you!”
Tanda-nan gives the prince magic powder… if he sprinkles it around the giant, it will turn him into music. But, oops--the owl gets turned into music instead, and that was the last of the magic. The prince and Tatsinda (who is tethered nearby) decide to weave a net to ensnare the giant.
After the giant is dealt with, Prince Tackatan asks Tatsinda to marry him--he’s always loved her. And then he opens his birthday presents. Cool--he loved her even without the magic! They marry, and three of their kids are white-haired and blue-green-eyed, and three are golden-haired and brown-eyed.
My Kids Weigh In:
My oldest son (23), saw me holding Tatsinda and said, “Oh, that’s a good one.”
I asked him what he remembered and why he liked it. Amazingly, he could retell practically the whole story. He thinks the appeal lies in the unique world-building--they’re up in this mountain kingdom, isolated, and giants are outside the mist. It gives it a feeling of space; a sense of dreamlike unreality. I can see his point, I think--he reads a lot of sci fi and fantasy, and the kingdom of Tatrajan certainly has the feel of an alien culture. Maybe Tatsinda was one of his earlier exposures to that sort of literature.
Son #2 (18) has no memory of reading Tatsinda, but offers an opinion anyway. His theory is that a young reader will accept the protagonist's problem at face value without being too picky about whether it's a valid problem or not. He contends that kids relate to the main character's struggle simply because they are struggling. (I still say Tatsinda wasn't struggling--at least not until she fell in love with the unavailable prince and got snatched by the giant--but he makes an interesting, if debatable, point.)
This book was memorable, but for me it didn't stand the test of time. Yes, the world is very cool. But the protagonist's goal is sort of a muddle. Tatsinda doesn't do much. She assists in her own rescue (by weaving the net) but she doesn't initiate the action.
What do you think--am I a critical crankypants, or does the story not measure up to today's standards? If you read Tatsinda as a child, did you like it? Would you recommend it to kids? Is there something about it that you’d want to emulate in your own writing?
In a future post, I’ll take a look at one of Enright’s realistic novels, like The Saturdays.