Book Review: Sorrow’s Knot, by Erin Bow
Filled as it is with Native American influence, some may quickly dismiss this book as a publisher’s effort at fostering diversity. That, however, would be a gross oversimplification (and probably untrue). In her second novel, Erin Bow has crafted a compelling fantasy filled with ghosts, magic, and exotic scenery. At its core, however, the story is powered by the conflicting emotions of friendship.
The narrative centers on three characters: Otter, Kestrel, & Cricket. Two girls and a boy, they grow up as best friends in the village of Westmost. It is a secluded place, occupied mostly by women, who must use the magic of the wards to keep the lurking dead at bay. Hiding in the shadows, the spirits of the dead come in a variety of forms. Some are small and black, powerful but easily handled. Others, like the fearsome White Hands, can bring madness and ruination with a single touch. When the dead and the magic which keeps them back begin to change, the three friends are forced to grow up quickly and face their fears, not all of which involve ghosts.
The magic at hand is based on knots and yarn, the binding of things (especially the dead). Like the world in which it works, this binding is based on Native American practices but, as Bow mentions in her Acknowledgements, the people of Westmost “are not meant to represent any particular indigenous culture.” She has essentially done what authors like Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings or Paolini with The Inheritance Cycle. Those books are clearly based on medieval Western Europe but are set in their own world. The same is true here. Bow’s created sphere (which seems to be nameless) is influenced by Native North American culture, especially tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Because the story is not about that society per se, the historical influence becomes a dynamic backdrop for the plot and characters.
For all the excellence of Bow’s world building, this novel is really about relationships. Instead of turning Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket into a love triangle, the author gives them a deep friendship which avoids such clichés. It’s a hopeful presentation which allows the characters to lean on each other as conflicts arise with both the dead and the living. Cricket’s relationship with her mother Willow is especially pivotal and difficult. As the Binder of Westmost, Willow is meant to protect the people with her magic and train her daughter to do the same. Something, however, is wrong with the knots and the magic they represent, and Willow is becoming more and more erratic. Ultimately, how Otter deals with her mother’s growing instability defines the course of the novel. It is possible, I think, to read Willow’s characterization, along with the true nature of the White Hands, as a compassionate commentary on mental illness. Viewed in that light, the author seems to be emphasizing the importance of patient listening when dealing with an unstable person. I’m reluctant to believe that Bow was intentionally making this statement, but rather think that it came from the care she poured into each character’s life.
This book is a true novelty, in that I have never read anything quite like it before. When I have encountered stories as heavily influenced by Native American culture as this one, they’ve come off as too heavy-handed for my tastes. Those plots and conflicts typically drew from native vs. invader or post-colonial tropes, but not so here. Bow tells her story within the created world and is every bit as effective as other, more well-known, fantasy authors. I fear that her work here will be overlooked due to a lack of swords and dragons, but that would be a great shame. This is a well-crafted novel, which is both a comfort to read and a disturbance. It challenges your expectations as a reader, even as it lulls you into the story with its curiously rhythmic prose.