Two books by Kara Dalkey
reviews by Laura Krentz, used by permission.
These appeared originally in her apazine, “Of Cows and Cats and Sealing Wax” for Once Upon a Time
The following review of the two Dalkey books was published in the December issue of Mythprint.
Dalkey, Kara. Little Sister (Harcourt, 1996) 0-15-201392-X \$17
Dalkey, Kara. Heavenward Path (Harcourt, 1998) 0-15-201652-X \$17
Readers who like a change from European-based fantasies are in for a treat with these two tales set in 12th century Heian Japan. Though they are written for young adults, the books will be appreciated by many adult readers, too. Little Sister was published under Jane Yolen’s now defunct imprint, which brought out many fine fantasies by new and established writers. The two books are beautifully designed, with gorgeous cover paintings by Victor Lee, and with a repeating leaf pattern background on thetitle pages and on each chapter heading page. The chapter heading pages also include a short Haiku poem that relates to that chapter. Both books conclude with an author’s note giving additional information on Japan of that period and a glossary of Japanese terms used in the stories.
In Little Sister, Fujiwara no Mitsuko is the thirteen year old fourth daughter of a powerful noble of the Fujiwara clan. Her carefully proscribed life (wearing layers of kimonos, writing poetry, and hiding behind protective screens as a lady of her rank should) is torn asunder when their home is raided and burned by warrior-monks. As the family flees the city, her oldest sister Amaiko’s new husband is killed, and Amaiko falls into a catatonic state. Believing that the only way she can help her beloved sister is to go after Amaiko’s lost soul, which is seeking her husband’s soul, Mitsuko must journey to the netherworld. She is assisted by a tengu, a shape-shifting demon named Goranu, whom she meets when she and Amaiko take shelter in a little shrine. There, she prays to the kami (spirit) of the shrine for help and promises to repair the shrine and see that it is not forgotten. Goranu appears to be the answer to her prayers as he takes her to the Dragon King, to Lord Emma-O (Judge of the Dead), and even to the Land of the Ancestors in her quest to save her sister’s soul. Goranu is a mischievous, humorously appealing character, who can be a man or a black-feathered bird-like creature. As he assists Mitsuko, he helps her to find her own courage and abilities and to ultimately reunite her family. The story is told in the first person, in a voice appropriate to Mitsuko’s age and background.
Two years later, in The Heavenward Path, Mitsuko is fulfilling her dream of studying to become a Buddhist nun, when she is haunted by dreams reminding her of her promise to the kami of the shrine from the previous book. This ghost-king wants nothing less the rebuilding of his shrine, the restoration of his tomb and its contents, and the finding of his descendants so that they can worship him. And when she goes home to enlist the help of her family, she finds that her father scoffs at her mission, and instead plans to marry her to an eleven year old boy in order to increase the family’s chances at becoming part of the Imperial family. Once again, she calls on her friend Goranu for help. He teaches her the Way of the Tengu (a very irreverent way of looking at the world) and says she must outwit the demanding ghost, who has threatened to turn her over to Lord Emma-O (who is still angry about Mitsuko’s last visit to his realm). Suzume, the very practical former rice-cake girl, also becomes an ally, and helps Mitsuko to understand other points of view. Mitsuko must learn to think for herself as she faces more challenges and dangers and meets a dragon, oni, and a bosatsu on this quest. The ending leaves room for a possible sequel, and astute readers who go back to the beginning of the first book will have some idea of what happened to Mitsuko, though they will still want to know how she got there. Upon a second reading, I figured out the identity of Mitsuko’s poetic admirer at court at the beginning of Little Sister. Young romantics will enjoy watching Mitsuko and Goranu’s growing relationship, even as they wonder at its improbability.
Both books are rich with Japanese and Buddhist mythology and traditions. The chapter headings in The Heavenward Path correspond to the twelve links in the Buddhist Chain of Causality. Mitsuko is a strong female character who finds her own ways to deal with a restrictive society and upbringing. Even Goranu is a fully-realized character. (As a tengu, he can be injured by touching the holy sutras, yet he longs to learn them.) Dalkey’s accessible writing style evokes the world of 12th century Japan, and is leavened with the just right amount of humor in plot and dialogue. The books also encourage some serious thought as they deal with spiritual and philosophical issues from a refreshingly different non-Western perspective.
Didn’t I read something of this before, Once Upon a Time