Books, Essays, Feminism

The REadWind: Alanna: The First Adventure

The REadWind series gets contributors to re-read the books they haven’t read in years and self-reflect. The goal is to explore how the contributors’ growth as a person plays a role in their experience in revisiting the book. Do they still like/hate it? How has it changed? Why? We ask the contributors to for a small blurb of what they remember and how they felt about the book before they start re-reading.

Before

I started reading The Song of the Lioness when I was around eleven, which was a super difficult time for me. My dad was moving away (which was not actually a bad thing, in the long run, but at the time felt like a huge upheaval). Through most of my life, he’d been telling me that, as a woman, I needed to look and behave a certain way. I should have long hair, I should be pretty and sweet and caring, and I should take care of him, even at such a young age.

And for the most part, my reading reflected those ideas. I was really into the Chronicles of Narnia, where “battles are ugly when women fight,” and most other books that had girls my age as caretakers and healers rather than fighters. I picked up Wild Magic at somebody else’s recommendation and read The Song of the Lioness after I was done with that series, and it really resonated with me because it was the first book where a girl like me (I liked Daine, but I wasn’t really like her) got to be the hero in her own way. I don’t remember reading it for the very first time, but I do remember re-reading the series over and over again through middle and high school until I got too old and sophisticated and ended up giving them away.

Now

Age eleven was a difficult time for me. I’d experienced a pretty traumatic event a few years earlier and was still dealing with the emotional fallout. I was beginning to suspect that my childhood was different from everybody else’s. I cut most of my hair off and started taking karate after watching Mulan, because I was eleven and ignorant and there were no Chinese martial arts instructors in my podunk town.

Alanna: The First Adventure. Tamora Pierce. 1983.It was through karate that I met Ari, a girl whose name I’d almost forgotten until now. She was a little bit older than me and, in my mind, a lot cooler, so when I told her I’d been reading Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce and she said, “Oh, those are pretty good, but have you read Alanna?” I dropped everything to get my hands on it.

I knew that returning to this book would bring back a lot of memories. What I didn’t account for is how burned into my memory the opening chapter is. I remember the cadence of Tamora Pierce’s language because I read this book over and over and over again until I sold it in a fit of adulthood that I’ve regretted ever since. As I re-read it, I saw so much of myself in it, so much for eleven-year-old Melissa to aspire to, something I desperately needed as a weird, lost, and lonely kid.

As a simple plot summary, Alanna of Trebond is a girl who wants to be a knight. She swaps places with her twin brother, the more magically inclined Thom, and rides off to the palace in disguise. Needless to say, keeping her gender a secret is quite a bit of trouble. Throw in some political drama, burgeoning magical talent, and interference from the world’s most important goddess, and you have a solid YA fantasy series.

But honestly, I didn’t care about the plot. I cared about Alanna, whose distant father only cared what she was up to when it behooved him to do so. I cared that she had the courage to do what I didn’t; she lived in the way that suited her, compromising where necessary and always striving forward—even when things were hard—out of sheer dogged determination.

At eleven, I was pretty aware of what was expected of me. I cooked and cleaned for my father because that was my role. I knew that long hair was much prettier than my short hair, and that I should grow it out again as soon as possible, because being pretty was the best thing I could aspire to. Nobody, not even my father, would like me if I wasn’t pretty.

Most of the books I read supported this. Heroines were always kind and beautiful and caring. They healed. They served. They were rescued. They might wield a bow or magic, but never as well as a hero would, and if they did, they would ultimately be punished for it.

Until Alanna came along. I had never read a heroine so much like me before. She got angry, jealous, and stubborn, and she didn’t let anybody put her down. In The First Adventure, she stands up to a bully in front of everybody. Around this same time, a boy called me trailer trash on the playground, and I challenged him to fight me right there. He didn’t, but I felt like I’d won anyway, because it seemed like that’s what Alanna would have done.

It wasn’t that I actively modeled myself after Alanna; I remained a quiet, bookish weirdo, for the most part. But while Hermione Granger was my model in smarts, Alanna was my model in anger. She was the heroine, not the sidekick. Everything that happened throughout the story was because of her agency, something I wanted desperately for myself. She lashed out, she got angry, and she took action. She didn’t wait for her circumstances to change; she changed them herself.

Reading Alanna: The First Adventure didn’t kick off an immediate change in me, but, re-reading it as an adult, I can see so much of the woman I became in her. When I think back to high school and every time I stood up to my dirtbag friends no matter how afraid I was or I think of telling my father to stop calling me when I was 19, I wasn’t thinking of Alanna at all. But I can see how the guidance of a fictional character got me there nonetheless.

As an adult, I see the flaws. The early ’90s gender baggage, the troubling racial characterization of the Bazhir. I’m sure Pierce’s writing has evolved in the past 30 years, as I have, embracing myself as a whole, not just the parts of me that remind me of my favorite heroine.

The 2014 edition, the one I bought to replace the childhood copy I sold to a used bookstore, has an additional essay in the back about how she really wrote Alanna for the young, troubled teens she worked with.

“My girls were too smart—and too versed in the real world—to have accepted a complete clean-up, and to tell the truth, I didn’t really want to do one,” she wrote. “My main goals in writing the book was to create something for the kid I was at twelve, first discovering fantasy and wanting a hero who was female and a warrior…”

I think of myself at eleven, at twelve, thirteen, fourteen. I think of the students I tutor now who face so much hardship and so many of the same gendered expectations that I did at their age. I think of me now at 28, an adult who has no shame about anger and who, for once, feels comfortable as the woman I am, not the woman society expects me to be.

I don’t owe it all to Alanna, nor to Pierce. I owe it to myself for fighting through, exactly as she would have done, exactly as I hope every person who reads or has read this series does.

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