Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

“The girl who remade the world was born in winter.

“It was the last day of the Nameless Moon, and bitterly cold. For as long as she could, the girl’s mother, whose name was Willow, walked round and round the outside of the midwife’s lodge, leaning on the earthen walls when pains came fiercely.  Willow’s hair was full of sweat, and her body was steaming like a hot spring. She was trailed by a mist of ice that glittered in the bitter sunlight. She looked like a comet.

She looked like what she was: a woman of power.

Willow was a binder: a woman whose power and duty it was to tie knots that bound the dead. But her knots could do more than that. When the time was right, she went into the midwife’s lodge, and there, as the last binder had taught her, Willow let her power turn backward and undid the knot between herself and her baby, and made an easy birth.”

The baby was Otter and she was born into “Shadowed People, the free women of theSorrow's Knot forest, in the embrace of mountains so old they were soft-backed, so dark with pine that they were black in summer.” She grew up in a town (known as a pinch) called Westmost: named thus because it was the “westernmost human place in the world.”

Otter grew up with a constant awateness of the dead but was “almost without fear of them.” She lived in the binder’s lodge with her mother and the first binder, Tamarack. They lived “a quiet life” comfortable with one another and honoured by their people.

The binder was one of the “cords” of the community.
Other cords were the rangers, the storytellers, the bonesetters and/or healers. The younger people worked in the fields and did a variety of jobs in the community before they became full fledged members of a cord. Otter had two very good friends: Kestral, destined to be a ranger and Cricket, who would become a storyteller and who was apprenticed to Flea. The three were exceptionally close while growing up. Seasons were named for the moon: Moon of Ease, Sunflower Moon etc. The sunflower years were what they called the space between childhood and adulthood, the time which is almost over for Otter, Kestral and Cricket.

Because her mother is a binder and because the binder’s most important task is to bind the dead and also, of course, because Otter has always believed that she will be a binder, she does not fear the dead. Other members of the community did fear the dead considerably.  “The dead were of three kinds. The commonest were the slip. They had no more form than a clump of roots and earth. They had no more will than hunger. ”

“The gast were different…They were stronger, rarer.”

“But better to be touched by the gast than the Ones with White Hands. The slip and the gast – their touch went to the body. The touch of a White Hand went to the mind.”

“The touch of the White Hands does not kill. It transforms. Those touched by a White Hand become Hands themselves.”

The book is an interesting combination and I would urge anyone who finds the theme of the dead and or the undead  too unsavory to withhold judgment initially if possible. The society which Erin Bow has created is a fascinating one and how Otter and Kestral and Cricket’s generation proceed to learn about the old ways and then challenge them is well worth following through to its conclusion.  There are harrowing adventures on the way but there are beautiful friendships and loving relationships that develop also. There are other peoples besides the Shadow People : the Sunlit People, the Water Walkers. And most of all there is the mystery of Sorrow’s Knot to unravel: “She’d been wrong. All her life. About everything. Wrong.
It was a very big thing. She sat with it awhile. Her hands on her knees were quiet: one white, one brown.”

A thought-provoking read with enough tension, adventure and suspense for readers of all ages. Very strongly drawn female characters for readers looking for that quality.

By the same author and reviewed on this blog in January 2013, Plain Kate.

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