book review · spinning · textiles in literature

Book Review: Sandry’s Book

Pierce, Tamora. Sandry’s Book (Circle of Magic, Book 1). New York: Scholastic, 1997. {Link}

 

The stories we love as children shape us for the rest of our lives. Even as adults, storytelling carries the power to direct our loves in might ways. And from love, of course, comes everything else: our sense of purpose; our relationships; how we spend our energy, time, money; and much else.

For example, if it hadn’t been for my favorite mystery series, I might never have learned to cook. As a grade-school girl, I loved the Mandie books almost obsessively, and wanted to be just like the Appalachian heroine who solved mysteries, loved Jesus, and always had good friends and a faithful cat at her side. One Christmas, my parents gave me The Mandie Cookbook – a collection of recipes based on meals and characters from the series. That cookbook made me realize–at the age of 10–that I could bring some of what I loved in books out into the real world. Suddenly, the girl who refused the follow recipes and had little interest in cooking was begging her mama to cook dumplings or pound cake.

Similarly, my interests in spinning and weaving were sparked by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans” and George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie. It took some years, however, for me to learn how these skills, as much as cooking, might enter into ordinary life.

Perhaps I would have taken up practical work with textiles sooner had I read Tamora Pierce’s novel Sandry’s Book when it was first published in 1997. I was in middle school by that time, and scoured the library shelves every summer, but somehow I missed this first in Pierce’s Circle of Magic series.

The novel brings readers into a magical world that is coherent and interesting, though nowhere as rich or lively as Narnia, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts. The main characters–each distinct and believable–are four misfits who, through the tutelage of mysterious benefactors, learn they have magical powers. The familiarity of this trope doesn’t bother me (after all, some of the world’s greatest tales have been intentionally unoriginal). At any rate,  in at least one way, Pierce offers a startling perspective on the nature of magic, a perspective that makes me think this story could help inspire a love for good work and craftsmanship in its readers.

Much fantasy fiction portrays magic as something utterly different from everyday life: powers that draw upon supernatural forces, or operate according to entirely unknown laws. The magic of most fairy and folk tales, on the other hand, represents magic as enlarging or enhancing the powers of an ordinary object: a bean grows a beanstalk, but one as tall as the sky! a young woman spins at her wheel, but the wheel yields gold instead of flax!

This is the kind of magic one finds in Sandry’s Book, and it is a refreshing change from alchemical mutterings and occult powers. After being taken to a special school, three of the four children discover their affinities for certain crafts. (The fourth has power over the weather and other elements, but even her power is the work of a maker with an unruly element, not a demi-god.) For Sandry, this craft is spinning wool into yarn.

Sandry’s very first lessons affirm, above all, the goodness of ordinary work, and Sandry must learn to master her spindle in the ordinary way before she can begin to think about  doing any more than producing a strong and steady thread:

“I love this work,” Lark murmured. “It’s soothing.”

Sandry nodded, eyes never leaving the spindle. “No matter where we travelled,I watched the local women as they spun. It always seemed like magic.”

“It is magic. And there’s magic you can do with it, if you have the power. To take something tangled and faulty, and spin it until its smooth and strong — now there’s work worth doing!” (96)

When the first lessons in magic begin, the children are able to draw on their novice experiences with these crafts in order to steady and clear their minds:

Niko was talking quietly, explaining how they must pull their minds […] into something small. […] Shutting his eyes, Briar felt the change physically as he sank into the rose, petal by petal. Sandry placed herself in the wool fed to a drop spindle, feeling herself grow tight and thin and long as she spun herself into thread. Daja squeezed into the rounded striking surface of a fuller and locked her mind on the warmth of hammering cherry-red iron.” (115)

By the story’s climax, Sandry and her friends are able to use their budding skills to accomplish something that is certainly beyond ordinary human powers. Sandry, fittingly, is able to draw her friends’ skills together, just as she has learned to twist fibers into thread. Her victory recalls the medieval guilds, who called their trade secrets mysteries, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the fact that to undertake “work worth doing” draws us back to the Creator in whose image we are made. The “secrets” that open the way to human satisfaction often lie hidden in plain sight — in the work that builds a table, grows food, or clothes us.

Have you ever read a story that made you long to be a maker? that kindled your interest in some good work or skill? I’d love to know — you can respond in the comments below.

 

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