As a lifelong reader, there are many books I read when I was young that have shaped me into the person I am today. Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables (which I didn’t actually read until high school… but it still shaped me), the list could go on. I remember loving Julie Andrews’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and tearing through every Boxcar Children book I could get my hands on.
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve returned to several of these books and have found them disappointing. Whatever spark they ignited in me no longer connects with the person I am today. They lose their savor and I can no longer remember why I returned to it again and again.
But that’s not always the case. There are some books that, when I enter in with my grownup perspective, only get better–books that I can go years without and, upon opening the first page, feel the magic rise up in me once more.
Tamora Pierce is one of those writers for me.
I was eleven when I picked up my first Pierce novel. I was in need of a book for a sixth grade reading project and, little did I know that day in the media center, I was meeting a dear friend for the first time. The book was First Test, the first in the Protector of the Small series. I blazed through it, completed my project, and was hungry for more. The school library didn’t have the next book in the series, so I turned to the only other Pierce book in the collection–Alanna: The First Adventure.
Alanna’s story sucked me in. Those were the days before Amazon and e-readers, so there were long gaps of time between reading each book in the series. Getting the next installment meant saving up my allowance, going all the way to the cities, and hoping Barnes & Noble had the next one. So as I waited to get my hands on each Alanna book, I reread the ones I already had.
Over the years, I read every scrap of Tortall that Pierce published. I recently picked up the Song of the Lioness quartet for the first time in years–this time, listening to it on audiobook.
In so many ways, the Song of the Lioness quartet defined my young womanhood. I was enthralled with Alanna–her determination, her stubbornness, and her courage to break all the boundaries of womanhood in her time. Whenever she faces a challenge, she finds a way to work hard and overcome it. She is the warrior woman that I aspired to be. But, even better, she was real. Alanna has insecurities, just like me. Her struggles change over the course of the books as she grows up. When younger, she feels like she has to fight for what comes so easily to boys and thinks like she doesn’t measure up. As she comes into her own as a woman, she fights to find the right balance in being a woman in a man’s profession. She doubts herself. She experiences pain, frustration, heartbreak, confusion, loss, and everything in between.
What I love so much about Alanna’s journey is that she comes to love herself for the woman she is. Pierce paints her with broad, bold feminist strokes. At first, she sees her gender as a barrier that must be overcome. But, over the course of the series, she learns that She undergoes an incredible journey of coming into her own. I love the scene in the first book when she gets her period for the first time and absolutely freaks out, declaring that she’s going to use her magic to find a way to end it. In the second book, she comes to terms with womanhood on a physical level–wearing dresses in disguise, engaging in physical relationships, and (finally) revealing her gender to the world. In book three, she grapples with the balance between being female and a warrior in public. The tipping point in one of her key romantic relationships lies on his (stupid) accusation that she’s not feminine enough. In the conclusion to the series, she comes into her own as a woman and an adult.
(Of course, the series is far from perfect. There’s some super problematic representation regarding the Bazhir, the desert tribe people, in Woman who Rides Like a Man. And, now that I’m older, I want more from many of the characters, who feel two-dimensional. There’s a lot of telling and not much showing.)
One of the things that astounds me about Alanna is that her actions paves the way for social change. In daring to break the rules governing gender roles, she leads the way for a new way of living. By the end of the series, Alanna and her friends have come into adulthood and have inherited a messy, broken kingdom. Together, they are primed to build a new world where the socially-constructed boundaries between classes and cultures and genders are done away with. It’s a beautiful vision and, if you read the Immortals and Protector of the Small quartets, you can see it come into fruition.
Alanna’s journey is epic–with adventures and battles and magic and villainy–but it’s also deeply personal. It’s the journey of a young woman coming into her own, learning to love, and fight for what she believes in. She makes it possible for women to blaze their own trails, for people of different backgrounds to find common ground and fight together, and for the world to become a richer place.
When I was young and reading Alanna, I had stars in my eyes. Reading Alanna in my 20’s, those stars are still there.
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