Over the years, I’ve read less and less. Partly this is because circumstances allow me little “extra time” to pick up a book and settle in; partly it’s because my attitudes about language and storytelling have changed. I have enough real life on my hands to keep me immersed in adventure, probably for the rest of my life. And too much writing falls into the category of “entertainment” where anything goes, where evil resides “out there” in some purely vile and psychicly distant villian, easy to loathe and easier to kill without the twinge of a second thought, just so everything can get back to how it was. “Entertainment” is just too easy. Because I’m something of a spiritual wanderer, looking for the next change of heart, I want words in my reads able to carry enough of a charge to light up the world and show me something I need to pay attention to — my daughter, for instance. I want literature that feels and thinks and prompts me to make important decisions. And I absolutely want the same for my children.
Yesterday, I finished reading Enna Burning aloud to my ten-year-old daughter. A better read than Goose Girl, which I liked, Enna Burning tells the “ever after” story of one of Goose Girl’s secondary characters, Enna, once an animal keeper who through devotion and heroism has become Queen’s Maiden to her best friend, Isilee Anadora Kiladra. Enna Burning tells a striking story of how young Enna acquires a remarkable gift, suffers the seductive effects of having power, commits grave errors, suffers the seductive effects of another’s misused gift, realizes the horror of her actions, repents of them, and makes a long and dangerous journey back into a community of equally intense and more or less gifted people who forgive, need, and love her. Enna Burning is not afraid to feel or to provoke others to feel, nor does it shrink from tapping into deep wells of personal responsibility and communal interdependence. I don’t say this often these days, being disappointed overall in the quality of language published abroad, but I am deeply grateful I read this book to my daughter.
Besides providing an excellent and archetypal story that satisfied both my daughter’s and my needs for meaningful adventure and emotional power, Enna Burning has a lot to say about how people use language, a subject that always catches my attention. Tightly and responsibly written, the story highlights the straightforward and the complex, the joyous and the the dangerous effects spoken language has upon both the speaker and the hearer. No mere trifle in this book, language. In spite of all the apparent magic in the story, some of the most potent moments involve what Hale calls “people speaking” — the “gift” of using words so as to captivate or free others.
Two of the book’s highlights (for me) involve the powers of language. The first occurs when, as Enna endures captivity by a warring people, she falls under the spell of an enemy warrior named Sileph. Outwardly, Sileph shows all the signs of being hero material: He’s handsome; seemingly devoted to his cause and to Enna, whose gift fascinates him; and he has a command of language. Using all these, he succeeds very nearly in seducing Enna into betraying her people, marrying him, and supporting his ambition to rise in power among his own people. This portion of the story succeeds in demonstrating how the honeyed lie works and what it takes to expose it; I wish I’d had access to its insights earlier in life. My daughter benefitted greatly from traveling through this part of the story with me.
The second highlight occurs when Enna is on the brink of falling for Sileph’s ploy. Only when Enna’s queen and best friend takes the risk of disguising herself and riding into the enemy camp where Enna is being held prisoner does Sileph’s spell over Enna quiver and snap. How does Isi’s presence help Enna shake off the effects of Sileph’s powerful gift of people-speaking? Within Enna’s hearing, Isi tells a tale that opens Enna’s eyes to the realities of her relationship with Sileph.
Elements of this part of the story were complicated. I had been growing somewhat impatient with how sultry Enna’s relationship with Sileph had become. Only when Isi told her story and Enna awoke did I realize why the sultriness was necessary and saw it as being absolutely right. When the genius of this part of the book dawned on me, I paused and looked at my daughter, wondering what she made of it all. “Do you understand what just happened here?” I asked. “Yes, he was just using her to get power,” she said. A good beginning for thinking about these sorts of problems in relationships!
I highly recommend Enna Burning for mothers and daughters, aged about ten and up, to read together. We borrowed our copy from the local library, but the quality of the writing and story makes it a permanent “must have” for our bookshelves; we’re ordering our own copy. My daughter is an avid re-reader; I want her to have this book on hand anytime she wants it.
As an aside, Enna Burning had another interesting effect. It reminded me of magical and unbelievable moments in my own life. Immediately after reading it, I took my daughter aside and told her the story of the first time I met her father and the role language played in that encounter. After giving her the back story, I told her, “Then he said to me, ‘I can see you have some power with language. What are you going to do with it?'”
What, indeed. Fine stories like Enna Burning keep that question burning for me, a live coal on my own tongue.
Enna Burning was published in 2004 by Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books.