Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin

Juvenile: 7th grade up

Some gifts are blessings. Some are burdens.

The people of the Uplands, whisper the lowlanders, are barbarians and witches. Still, their peculiar gifts are the substance of legends, and Emmon comes among them as a thief, bent on taking the wealth such gifts are sure to have procured. So he is baffled when the first Uplanders he encounters are blind Orrec and the gentle woman Gry. He does not believe them when they explain.

Le Guin has a powerful voice, most compelling when she whispers. That is how she begins Gifts, first novel in a new series, with a subtle, insidious whisper of power misused. For Orrec is not blind, he simply refuses to use the gift of his family, when fully Seeing a thing can mean its undoing. His is a wild gift, perhaps powerful, but uncontrolled.

Each line, or clan, in the Uplands has its gift, some of which descend through the male line, and some through the female. There is the twisting, the power to twist the form of one's enemy. One line is reputed to have the power of blinding, making deaf or dumb, another the ability to send a spellknife into an enemy's heart. The gifts of rein and broom let their lines take control of another's will, or whisk his brain clean of thought.

Orrec's father used his line's gift, the undoing, on the woods on the far side side of the border with Drummant, a ruthless, reiving clan. The gift of the Drummant causes living things to wither and die, and with his gift, Ogge of Drum has taken command of a large portion of the Uplands. The undoing promised by the blasted black stumps along their border fence has halted their advance for a long time, but now Ogge is making demands that Orrec's father hesitates to deny. The threat of power lurking behind Orrec's blindfold is all that holds him at bay.

Gry is Orrec's friend, perhaps his sweetheart, and she has also denied the gift that came with her maternal line. Her power is to call animals to her; her mother and ancestors have used it to call beasts to the hunt, bringing them to the slaughter. Gry refuses to do this, preferring to use her gift only in training horses, and dogs. Because she will not use her gift as her parents demand, they have sent her away from the Uplands, and she lives in poverty with Orrec and his father.

Why do the Uplanders have such hideous gifts, if not to battle with each other? From his darkness, Orrec must decide how to manage his gift. In her exile from her family, Gry must decide if her choice is the right one.

Le Guin's tale builds from one choice to another as these two voluntary rejects search for their purpose in the world. As with all her stories, compelling characters rise organically from the narrative. We want Orrec and Gry to make the right choices.

The young reader is guided by the story to see that the choices they make are not only the right ones for these two young Uplanders, but a better choice for all the Gifted.