By Kate Boorman
I have to say “shaped my writerly brain”, as opposed to the first book “I loved”, because it’s so hard to remember and choose a first love (I suspect it was Go Dog Go! but a) who really knows and b) that doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post. Except for that party hat the one dog makes for herself at the end. That thing is awesome.) So for my first post as a Fall Fourteener, I’ll introduce myself via a first loved book that had a lasting impression on my preoccupations as a writer.
As with many of my isms shaped by childhood, this is something that has occurred to me only recently. A few months ago I read the book to my own children and experienced a moment of intense self-discovery (it went like “ohhhhhhhhhh.” Least expensive therapy session EVER).
The book is Astrid Lindgren’s RONIA, THE ROBBER’S DAUGHTER.
Lindgren is perhaps best known for the well-loved The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking but, in my opinion, her best, most tear-your-heart-out-gently-but-thoroughly book is RONIA.
The deal: Ronia is the wild-haired, ruddy-cheeked daughter of a robber chief, living in a mountain fort above a magical forest. Like the gang of rough and tumble thieves she grows up amongst, Ronia adores her father. Likewise, she is beloved by her parents and the robber gang. She is also afforded a freedom that is the envy of every child with a mind for adventure. Despite the hazards of the mountainside, both natural (raging river) and magical (murk trolls! harpies that shriek about clawing your eyes out!), Ronia has the run of the forest from the moment she can walk. She explores the mountainside alone, breeze in her hair and soft pine needles at her feet (BAREFEET no less!). All is well in Ronia’s world of new discoveries until a rival robber gang challenges her father’s territory, and she befriends the enemy’s son.
It’s a lower MG story about growing up and letting go. It’s about bonds of love that weather the toughest storms. And its ability to tap into childhood fantasies of adventure in the most poignant, darkly-beautiful way…. well, this is the aforementioned “ohhhhhh”.
Natural spaces have always possessed a bit of indescribable magic, for me. As a child, an acorn and a creek could transport me to a magical land for an entire afternoon. As an adult, my most memorable experiences have occurred in the wild: watching heart-stopping sunrises, exploring ethereal caves, breathing salty ocean air. Witnessing Mother Nature’s power, from the modest tulip bulb to the awesome Aurora Borealis, is transformative. I wonder and fantasize about that mostly-forgotten but deep-in-our-bodies connection to that which sustains us. Lindgren’s book has this connection in spades, and the way Ronia grows in response to her experience in the wilderness resonated with me in a very primal way.
But the mystery of nature isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. It is also gale force winds and decay. It is the rot at the base of glistening, moss-covered trees. I love that. I need a bit of darkness with my light. I crave a little “what if?” and “oh no!” in my narrative. Ronia’s forest is a forest of wonder and magic, and it is a forest of terror. Deadly beings lurk under rocks and scour the skies, and she must learn to navigate the light and the dark. As a child, the idea of the unknown thrilled me. As an adult, a healthy bit of fear still lights me up. Unknowns and things that go bump in the night intensify our sense of being alive. I feel compelled to write toward that, to give my reader that pulse-racing, scalp-crawling feeling of aliveness.
WINTERKILL, my YA alternate historical, isn’t RONIA. There are no robbers, no barefeet, no wild horses to tame (yes, the kids in RONIA get to tame wild horses. I KNOW, right?). There is certainly no freedom to roam. On the contrary, there is isolation and containment.
But there is a great fascination with nature. The setting was inspired by a natural landscape I know and adore. The mystery is tied to the allure of wild and dangerous places and my main character’s overwhelming urge to be out there, to unearth the unknowns, drives the story. Here, too, bonds of love are tested by the forbidden. And mysterious monsters in the woods? Oh yes.
It’s all spookily reminiscent of the book that first captured my imagination all those years ago.
Add a frontier settlement ruled by fear, one physically vulnerable, but determined, heroine, an unwanted marriage proposal, a love interest, and a buried secret, and there’s WINTERKILL: my little creepfest on the prairies.
I hope my first book will satisfy your spooky-adventure-in the-wild loving side.
What books have shaped your writerly brain?