Isn’t that the biggest sin of all for a woman? Not to be of use?
The novel The Grace Year by Kim Liggett is set in a society, The County, where sons are valued and men hold all of the roles within the society, but women exist only for the capabilities as a mother (who will hopefully produce man sons) and a wife. Women who are not chosen as wives work in the fields or markets, without any social status or wealth. Enjoying sex is not a concept for women; they are expected to lie “legs spread, eyes to God.” In the County, men believe that women come into a type of magic during their sixteenth year. As the magic will do damage to men, these teenage girls are exiled into the woods for an entire year, their “grace year,” where they find their magic, let it work through their bodies, and come home (if they survive) pure and ready for marriage. Aside from being away from civilization and such things as food, clean water, shelter, medicine, or social structures, the girls are threatened by poachers. If a poacher manages to capture a grace year girl outside of the encampment where they live, he kills her and her body is cut into pieces, which are then eaten by the men in the County as a way for them to “consume” the women’s magic and keep it for themselves.
The main character is Tierney, who, as the novel begins, is preparing for her grace year. She is unlikely to receive a veil before she leaves—no one will choose to marry her, because she is “Tierney the Terrible” who likes to be outside in the woods or the fields rather than being in the proper places for women. She is OK with this; she just wants to survive her grace year and then come home to work in the fields, where she will not have to be beholden to a husband or a family but can at least be outside moving her body. Things at the veiling ceremony do not go as expected, and then her grace year begins.
This is a hard book to discuss without giving away any spoilers. If you haven’t read it but want to, just read this paragraph but no further, as the plot twists are worth discovering within the story rather on someone’s blog. I listened to this book and the reader, Emily Shaffer, was excellent. I almost gave up on it, though. The characters weren’t grabbing me and I felt frustrated by the mean-girl aspects, even though they are important to the plot. I stuck with it, though (mainly because the next book I wanted to listen to wasn’t available yet!) and about one-third the way through I started loving it. The writing style is fluid and moving; the pacing is a bit uneven but not terribly so. Many reviews I’ve read have compared the book to The Handmaid’s Tale, probably because of the highly restrictive community, but for me it was more of a dystopia+religious-cult+nature-adventure blend. I had a few issues with the story but overall I am glad I read it.
Once the girls are at their grace year encampment—which is on an island off the coast of a large lake, and is surrounded by cedar trees made into a fence (I could never envision this fence, as it is sometimes described as tree-like and sometimes smooth and not-of-nature)—the tribalism The County nurtures in the women comes to a full manifestation. Someone has to be in charge, and Kiersten, a girl who was popular and beautiful at home, takes that role, even though Tierney knows many of the skills they will need to survive for a year in the woods with very little. Kiersten thinks that things like clean water in rain barrels (instead of the water from the well, which is coated with a green moss) is pointless, as their magic—figuring out what it is and then how to get rid of it—is the point. This section was the height of my frustration, as Tierney is clearly a better leader and yet all of the girls in her alliance slip, one by one, onto Kiersten’s side. Even though that might be what really would happen in such a situation (the dynamics of girl-on-girl cruelty are fascinating and myriad), the girls’ inability to see how they are damaging themselves by aligning with her power made me crazy. And Tierney doesn’t stand up for herself much, but lets Kiersten bully her in a way that doesn’t seem authentic to her.
The girls think their magic will be some sort of supernatural power. Kiersten, of course, “finds” hers first: she declares her magic is that she can make anyone do whatever she wants, just with her power, and when girls do something unexpected, she takes credit for their actions. Since in The County what happens in the grace year stays in the grace year—literally no one talks about their experiences, not even mothers to help their daughters—there is a sort of mythology that has built up around the types of magic. Flight, invisibility, the strength to make the sun set or rise, for example. Tierney is having none of it; as a person who has spent time in the woods and with an observant and scientific nature, she doesn’t know exactly what the “magic” is but doesn’t, deep down, believe it is real.
I found the concepts that the story builds on to be fascinating. What is the power or magic that women hold? If men fear it and try to subdue it, what happens? Could they remain in power if women didn’t allow men to take their magic away? If you are a woman living in a society that is constructed to keep you powerless, how do you find power? These are topics I love exploring through fiction (The Power, Gather the Daughters, All the Truth That’s In Me for example) and so some of my…dissatisfaction, I guess, in this book was that it played it safe.
I think the men in this story are afraid of women’s sexual power. Thus the “eyes to God” rule and the non-existence of women’s pleasure. That is one of the forms of magic that the grace year is supposed to strip away from them. Tierney, as a character who is starting to see the strings the men use to control them, is in a unique position to figure this out, and then, when she runs out of the encampment to escape Kiersten’s violence, she has a bigger chance. She is rescued by a poacher named Ryker, who doesn’t skin and then kill her, but instead takes her to his blind and tries to heal her. He does this because her father, who takes care of The County’s medical needs, also secretly helps the poachers. Tierney’s father saved Ryker’s friend from an illness, but only on the condition that Ryker would make sure Tierney survived her grace year.
And herein lies my deepest struggle with this book: they fall in love. Even though Ryker has detailed drawings of her naked body, marking all the scars and her father’s brand, so if he does decide to kill her she can be identified by The County. Even though that is his entire existence and identity: killing grace year girls and cutting their bodies apart. I mean, he’s new at this and has never actually killed a grace girl yet, but it’s his career path. Falling in love with your captor, finding out he’s really a captor with a heart of gold and is only doing it for some noble reason (here, to save his mother, who has taken six of the County’s banished girls under her wing) is one of my least-favorite tropes in a book. And it’s especially disturbing to find it in an avowed “feminist” novel.
But I also think a romance is essential to the point of the story, which is that one of the women’s powers is their sexuality. I just deeply, deeply disagree with the shape the relationship takes. Plus, their “love” is built on so little: him taking care of her. At one point he starts explaining his plan to his friend, that he and Tierney are going to escape, go west, find another settlement where they can be together, and she doesn’t even know she has feelings for him yet. Plus, if sexuality is one of the magics, I think it was necessary to actually witness the sex, rather than the fade-to-black sex.
The other very real magic that women hold is their relationship with other women. Kiersten knows this and uses it to her advantage, and honestly it is the magic I think the men want the women to keep. Or at least, keep it in the way it develops during the grace year, the Lord-of-the-Flies brutality that women wield against each other. If they keep that tool and use it against other women, it makes it easier for me to remain in power, because in essence women do much of the work for them. (The opposite form of this power is women standing up for women, which is just barely explored in the story. Perhaps there will be a sequel.) When she goes back to The County after her grace year, Tierney finds that women are starting a very quiet and careful rebellion away from that type of magic.
Anyway. Here I am at almost 1700 words about one book. Clearly it struck many nerves for me. It is far from a perfect book, but I am glad I read it. I would love to discuss more with you if you’ve read it too.