Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky
Terry Pratchett (2003, 2004; Harper Collins)

I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett's work for adults, though I'm sure he doesn't make too much of the distinction, since his Discworld series is perfectly accessible to teenagers. The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky also take place on Discworld; they are marketed as children's books because their heroine starts out as a nine-year-old girl. Tiffany Aching lives in the high chalk country, analogous to the downs of southern England. It's a good place for sheep, if not much else, and she's a dab hand with the cheesemaking. She has also decided to grow up to be a witch.
The possibility of magic is one of the main differences between Discworld and ours (the other being, of course, that our world does not rest on the backs of four elephants, which are standing on the back of a giant turtle.) What Tiffany has to learn, to become a witch, is not so much how to do magic, but when to refrain from doing it. As Tiffany's first teacher, Miss Tick (Pratchett likes his puns, the lower the better) says, "Witches don't use magic unless they really have to. It's hard work and difficult to control. We do other things. A witch pays attention to everything that's going on. A witch uses her head."
Tiffany is more than half a witch already, it seems. That's why she's the favorite human of the Nac Mac Feegle, a gang of six-inch-high blue men, very strong, with red hair and pugnacious dispositions. They are not quite evil, but definitely lawless; very fast and very strong, they'll steal anything on the farm, from a needle to a ewe, though they're especially partial to strong drink.
Pratchett has a great gift for plucking the strings of stories we already know, and making new music with them. Tiffany herself has a questioning turn of mind toward the old stories. "...the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about 'a handsome prince'...was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called him handsome? As for 'a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long'...well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light!" When she meets a monster she's heard described as having eyes as big as soup plates, she goes and measures a soup plate (eight inches). My kind of girl.
These are tales of derring-do and danger, cunning and courage. If you know any eleven-year-old girls like Tiffany, you should pass these books along. If you were one, you'll want to read them yourself.

April 2006

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