Between publishers and bookstores and authors themselves clamoring for attention—preorder gifts! promotional temporary tattoos! listicles!!!—I sometimes forget to be grateful. It’s especially humbling, therefore, to come across a book that reminds me so powerfully that we are privileged to live in a time when such good writing on such meaningful topics is so readily available. Ten years ago, no one would have published a book that threw together dragons, teen pregnancy, depression, alcohol dependence, emotional abuse, religious revelation, and travelogue. Even now that combination seems overwhelming, and that’s not even the half of it. All those elements, and yet the story is coherent and deeply affecting. It’s not just brilliantly conceived, it’s brilliantly combined.
The crux of the story is that Tess has done a Bad Thing. I would love to be able to say more about what this Bad Thing is, especially because treatment of it is so nuanced and compassionate, but I can’t bear to give even this small spoiler. Tess’s whole journey, both physical and emotional, is such a magnificent unfolding that it would be wrong to rob you of a detail taken out of its proper order. Everything is so natural, the past and the present weaving together to make Tess’s progress toward a more hopeful future.
It would be hard to be less hopeful, admittedly, than the ones she faces at the beginning. To stay with her sister as a perpetual companion, never the center of her own story—or to be shipped off to a nunnery, her story ruthlessly pruned to the shape of her parents’ choosing. Her mother is a troubled woman who uses Tess as the family scapegoat, belittling and punishing her for her mere existence, and her father is a largely absent. The life they choose is no life at all, and so Tess escapes.
Running away is not really an escape, though, since you take your wounds with you. So how do you get therapy before therapy (as a concept) exists? Well, when you’re Tess, you walk on. She is tempted to kill herself as a more permanent escape, but instead decides to take each day on a trial basis. Deciding to live for another day means that she will simply walk and take whatever comes her way—a decision that soon provides adventure, danger, and solace.
I appreciated the frank look at suicide. It’s good to see how characters cope when those around them neither know nor understand, since not everyone has access to contemporary medical treatment. Depression and suicidal ideation are ultimately things that the sufferer must contend with inside their own head, and Tess provides some real insight into the struggle.
Which isn’t to say that Tess doesn’t have help. She meets many wonderful people along the Road, who help her and whom she helps in turn. It’s an engrossing tale full of rescues and thievery and drama, which in no way contradicts the parallel journey of self-discovery Tess is on. The body’s path and the mind’s are connected, and Hartman really embraces the physicality and the inner fire of her heroine.
There is also some very fascinating religious—or, more specifically, mystical—experience and interpretation done in this book, and my master’s degree is very happy.* Whereas Seraphina and Shadow Scale touched more on the divide between emotion and logic, here we have a gentle examination via narrative of paradox, and its role in emotional life.** Tess is the perfect protagonist for this, bound up and tormented by her contradictions, but also strong enough to hold two mutually opposed ideas in tension with each other. Her mother is a cruel, abusive woman and needs to be stopped; her mother is beset by her own pain and needs compassion. It’s not that these two things are mutually exclusive, but they are contradictory emotions that torment Tess until she learns to accept the paradox: she can both love and hate her mother, want to be with her and want to escape her, and both value and ignore her lessons.
When authors invent their own languages the results can be very…mixed. I’m pleased to see that Hartman kept it simple and mostly gave us a couple of gems. First, the suffix –utl, which oh, how I wish it were real. When suffixed, it means “[the thing] and also its opposite [at the same time].” Thus, mother-utl means “a mother but also not a mother.” Male-utl means “male and also female at the same time.”
(My favorite English word does this naturally: cleave, which means both to cling to but also to separate from. There are a few other words that are their own antonym, but the elegance of a flexible suffix is magnificent.)
Second, the quigutl neuter pronoun ko, which makes perfect sense for a species whose members can change gender multiple times across a lifetime. Gender is handle subtly and without much fanfare, which is pleasant. Tess just accepts that her friend was female and now is male. Sexuality is explored more dramatically, and I wish that I could hand this not only to young adults who are questioning but also to people of all ages who need to be more accepting of different choices, different lifestyles, different abilities, and just plain difference.
If this book had only one theme, it would be acceptance. And not just lukewarm “you do your thing” acceptance, but deep, powerful, thoughtful acceptance of yourself and others. Acceptance of hardship, of flaws, and of wonder. I’ve rarely come across a book so aware of the fact that it is sometimes harder to accept joy, pleasure, and healing than it is to accept unhappiness and shame. As Tess struggles and triumphs over her past and Walks On, I can only hope that others will be as honored to share her journey as I have.
*Fun fact for the academic: according to Derrida, himself a terror, “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.” Therefore I have found it helpful to conceive of academia in this vein, and give it belly rubs and snacks to assuage both it and me.
** You do not need to have read either of the book’s loose predecessors (Seraphina and Shadow Scale) to enjoy this one, although if you have you’ll be seeing some familiar faces and will have to refer to the glossary far less frequently.