Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Worked?--Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Tatsinda

“Once upon a time, far, far away at the top of the world, where it is always cold, there was a mountain that no one knew about except the people who lived on it.”

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.

The Story:
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. 


Jess said...

I've never heard of this one, but I'll be checking for it at the local library~ thanks for the review!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Thanks for visiting & following, Jess. If you read it, let me know what you think.

Charlotte said...

I loved Enright's Melendy books with a passion, and when I found that she had actually published the story that Randy tells to Oliver after he falls in the well, I thought I was like to die with excitement. And then I ended up being disappointed, because it wasn't as wonderful as I had wanted it to be...

Kate Coombs said...

I remember reading this as a child and liking parts, but not being completely blown away by the book and wondering why. I reread it about two years ago to figure it out, and I agree with you--it's a little bland. Lots of description and inaction, especially from the title character. Great to hear about the Melendy tie-in, though!

Ruth Donnelly said...

Charlotte, I loved them too--I wanted to be Randy! I'm looking forward to rereading them.

Kate, you're right. Giving Tatsinda a more vital role would have strengthened the story. I think the Melendy books have a lot more character development.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I've not heard of this one. It's interesting how our likes and dislikes change, and how differently my kids feel about reading than I did. My daughter likes to read, but she doesn't LOVE books like I did. I've tried to get her to read some of my favorites, but the pacing isn't fast enough for her. I wonder if I'd feel the same if I revisited some of my childhood favorites.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Same here, Nora. My daughter and I have somewhat similar tastes, but she LOVES certain books that just leave me cold...and vice versa. A lot of current middle grade and YA is very dramatic and fast-paced ... I guess b/c it has to compete with the internet, tv, and movies.

Lola Montez said...

Yes, you are a cranky pants! This is a book for CHILDREN -- it is clearly a fairy tale. Do fairy tales have all kinds of action & backstory? It's written for children ages 7-10! (I am impressed your oldest son not only read it -- since it has a female protagonist and not much action -- and that he remembered it perfectly after 15 years!).

"Tatsinda" came out the year I turned 8; I was an avid reader. It was promoted by the school librarian, in part because of its message of tolerance for people who "look different". Remember this was 1963! The Civil Rights movement was beginning. There were still Jim Crow laws in the South. "Tatsinda" was actually kind of edgy for its time, and soft-pedaling a message of racial tolerance (while still having conventional fairy tale characters like the handsome prince and ordinary girl he picks from all the princesses in the land).

Clearly the title "Tatsinda" alludes to Cinderella, and the story has many fairy tale elements, also calling to mind "Thumbelina" (the old childless couple who adopt a mysterious infant who is "different"). I am sure there are also other stories where the protagonist is a weaver or seamstress of some kind.

Remember this was LONG before the modern day interest in fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction, or the countless YA novels about such things. "Tatsinda" was really a generation or so ahead of its time, with its fantasy world-building.

NOTE: you mentioned the lovely line drawings, but NOT the wonderful watercolors. Irene Haas was mostly celebrated for her watercolors, and her work here is magnificent -- maybe her very best. In retrospect, I am really surprised this did not win a Caldecott! though the early 60s was so chock-full of such wonderful children's fiction and illustrated works, that the competition must have been fierce. Really, there is nothing today that is of the calibre of the books that came out then, and I feel awesomely privileged that I got to read these as a child, just as they were published!

BTW: this is the SAME YEAR that Garth Williams did all of the "Little House on the Prairie" books, which I think is still considered the "official gold standard edition" and still in print (amazingly). I read these books at nearly the same time as "Tatsinda". They still glow in my mind, as some of the literature I loved best and influenced me the most.

I suggest you go back, re-read this book some balmy summer afternoon and remember, it was written for grade-schoolers, and even if you dislike the story or find Tatsinda herself to be too conventional a "pretty heroine" -- the illustrations ALONE make it a classic.

One sad note: there are not one but TWO newer illustrated editions of this book, VASTLY inferior to this one with the Irene Haas pictures. I don't know if the copyright on the illustrations ran out or what! If you order this on Amazon or at the library, chances are very good you will get stuck with one of these newer editions. To me, the illustrations and text here work as one -- it's like trying to read "Alice in Wonderland" WITHOUT the famous classic Sir John Tenniel drawings.....not the same, not the same. Missing some essential element.

Anyways, thanks for the mention. One of my very favorite books of my childhood.