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Monday, February 26, 2018

Just Finished Rereading...Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr

I got this for reviewing from Allen and Unwin ages ago. In the end, I did an interview with the author instead. Since then, it has been shortlisted for the CBCA Awards and won a Prime Minister’s Award. Both are well deserved. A reread made me appreciate this even more.

At the time, my entire fascination  for Minoan bull dancing came from Mary Renault’s classic The King Must Die. That was about Theseus and a wonderful book it was! I’ve read it over and over and had to buy it in ebook because ebooks don’t fall apart.

But it was very different from this novel. The heroine, Aissa, is the daughter of the Lady of a small Greek island during the Minoan era. Her mother panicked when she was born with an extra thumb on each hand - not perfect! - and, after her husband cut off the thumbs to save the child and drowned, ordered her to be killed by the midwife. Instead, she was brought up first by a family that had lost its child, then as a kitchen drudge when her adoptive family were carried off by raiders. At thirteen, she goes to Crete as a bull dancer, trained to do acrobatics with the sacred bulls. So far, nobody taken as a tribute has ever returned from Crete...

The fantastical elements are wonderful, as Aissa finds that, despite her elective mutism, she can “call” everything from dragonflies to bulls and even, in one scene, humans.

But the story is believable. The author knows about the behaviour of bulls, having lived on a dairy farm for twenty years - and about acrobatics and children. Mary Renault’s Theseus is eighteen and has already fought in battles and been a king. He manages to be a very good bull dancer because he is small, agile and light. And that’s fine. I have seen an adult trainer from Australia’s Flying Fruit Fly (children’s) Circus as a very athletic Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But I’m betting he started early. Some years ago, we had a Circus program at my school, to teach kids to do some simple acrobatics, then perform for the school. The students were all young, Years 7 and 8. None of them had ever done anything like it before. Yet within a few weeks they were doing amazing things! Young bodies are more flexible than older ones; it’s not for nothing that Olympic “women’s” gymnastic teams are made up of little girls.

Wendy also feels that as a sacred activity, the bull dance would be more than just entertainment. It’s an act of worship. It doesn’t happen every week, only once a season, in connection with a religious ritual. The trainers try to keep you alive by training you as best they can, and anyone not likely to make it as a bull dancer is weeded out and sent to be a palace slave. But there is to be no cheating. When Aissa saves a dancer by calling the bull in her mind, the Mother(Queen and High priestess) is furious. And unlike in The King Must Die, in which every team has its own bull, in this one, the bull is sacrificed at the end of the bull dance. There are herd bulls, but the fastest children are sent out to capture a wild one for the dance.  And, as the knowledgeable author says, sometimes the wild ones are less dangerous than the tame bulls, which know what to expect.

I think I enjoyed the book more this time than the first. I appreciated the large chunks of verse that seemed odd the first time. I cared about the characters.

I’m very glad that I no have this in ebook. I think I’m going to need it. 


Ashlea Daune said...

Oh this looks pretty good.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, a beautiful book!