I finished rereading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett today and it was wonderful to realise it lost nothing on a second (possibly third) reading. In fact, since I’ve had a daughter of my own, I think the book has changed and grown in significance. It’s up there in the books I’d like my daughter to read as she comes into an awareness of herself.
If you don’t know Terry Pratchatt’s Discworld novels, they are based in a world that’s like a warped mirror of our own, with magic in place of science and technology. Witches hold a special place in the world: they are both central and outside life, revered and feared in equal measure. As their greatest witch – Granny Weatherwax – puts it, they guard the Edges between Dark and Light, Good and Evil, Life and Death. They have First Sight and Second Thoughts. They see what’s really there. Above all, they’re cool. I love them.
Granny Weatherwax is possibly one of the greatest characters ever invented. She gets inside your head and makes you question everything. (If you want to see Granny at her finest, read Carpe Jugulum.)
The Wee Free Men isn’t about Granny, it’s about Tiffany: a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm on the Chalk, makes cheese and minds are younger brother. She also has First Sight and Second – even Third – Thoughts. And she has to rescue her brother from the Fairy Queen, even though she doesn’t like him very much. I won’t go into the story, just recommend you read it in words much better than mine.
My reason for writing about it here is to explain why I think it’s a must-read for any little girl (or boy possibly) coming to a sense of herself: It explores the voices that exist inside a person’s head, and the difficulty of understanding which of the many voices is Me.
Tiffany is the kind of girl who sits just outside life, watching. The Discworld Witches always are. And Terry Pratchett says That’s okay. In our society, the people in the kitchen at parties – the ones not drinking or joining in, the ones just observing – are a little bit wrong. They are considered aloof, boring, shy, weird, cold. I know because I am that person And all those labels have been applied to me. I’ve been ridiculed for not wanting to get drunk, for not letting go.
There has always been a little voice in my head that watches me and comments on my behaviour. It’s hard to get drunk and be silly when there’s a sober person in your head telling you what a pratt you’re making of yourself. As a result I don’t often drink and I’m rarely the one telling jokes. At my last place of work, and in many other situations in my life, that has meant almost complete exclusion. It’s not a nice place to be, feeling like a freak or someone who didn’t get the memo on how to have fun.
Growing up I read endlessly to live in my own world. I read Sweet Valley High and Lord of the Rings, Famous Five and Mills and Boon. Romance and action/adventure. For some reason ‘thinking’ books – what might be called literary books – didn’t come my way. I don’t know why, although I often feel the need to apologise for it, as if a ten-year-old can control the books they’re exposed to. So I read nothing that told me that having a cacophony of voices in my head was okay, was normal, whatever that is.
What The Wee Free Men explores is the notion that it’s okay to be different. That people who sit outside the group and watch – who listen to the voices in their heads – are the kind of people who speak up for things without a voice, who save the day, even if no one acknowledges it. They are strong people who won’t be beaten. I suspect my daughter may grow up to be a girl who watches, one who doesn’t follow the pack. I want her to know that’s okay. I think she’ll learn that from this book.
Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: [Warning today’s post contains strong language.]
The car felt warm and comforting after the chill of Lavender Farm and the unexpected encounter. Claire looked across at Sky eating her ice cream; her face still showed red mottling from crying, but her eyes were calm. Kids are amazing. I’d still be crying now, if that wanker was my father. She could see her niece’s eyes were heavy and thought a sleep in the car would do her good.
Claire programmed in the SatNav and reached forwards to attach it to the windscreen. Movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye: It was Chris. She tried to ignore his gestures, but his demeanour dragged her attention. He looked as if he was signalling for her to come out the car by herself. Intrigued – and not unwilling to go and give him a piece of her mind away from listening ears – Claire sat back in the seat and dramatically slapped her forehead.
“Sorry, Sky. I just remembered I left my mobile phone in the shop. Will you be alright here in the car for a moment, if I just run in and get it?”
Sky looked across with fear in her eyes and Claire’s stomach lurched. I really shouldn’t leave her alone, after the shock she’s had. I can hardly take her with me and use all the words I want to use though.
“How about if I lock the doors? I’ll be back before you finish your ice cream.”
After a moment, Sky nodded tentatively and pushed down the button on the door next to her. Sky reached over and locked the others, making sure she had the keys in her hand before she left the car.
It felt good to stalk over to the man who had broken her sister and niece’s hearts. Words of heat and wrath built like fire in her throat. She felt tempted to start shouting before she reached him, but he stood with his arms at his side and his head low. I want to look in his eyes and see that he’s hearing me. Besides, if I start screaming like a fishwife across the car park, Sky might hear.
She stopped three feet away from him, arms folded. Let him start. I want to hear what the bastard has to say to excuse his behaviour. Silence stretched and Claire ached to fill it with hot words. Somehow she knew the quiet was hurting Chris more, so she maintained eye contact and waited for him to speak.
“I had no choice.” His words fell between them, as if he’d pushed them out with effort.
“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”
“I…” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. Claire noticed it was thinner than it used to be. “I wanted it to work. With Ruth. And Sky. And I loved them both, really. But Ruth –”
Suddenly Claire didn’t want to hear it. She’d only ever heard Ruth’s side of the story; honesty compelled her to confess that might have been skewed. Her body language must have given her away because Chris reached out a hand, before letting it drop once more to his side.
“Don’t go. Hear me out, please. Maybe you can help Sky, a little. I saw the pain I caused her.”
“Then why did you reject her? Not stay in touch? Run off with her fucking ballet teacher.” It felt good to shout at this weak man standing before her. To swear with precision and relish and watch him flinch as the truth struck him like pellets of ice.
“Because I wanted to be a Dad more than anything!” The words came out in a rush. “And Ruth wouldn’t let me. Sky was her precious daughter. From the minute she was born it was her and Sky. There was no room for me. She wouldn’t let me do anything – feed her, bathe her – I was barely allowed to touch her. Then, when she started school, Ruth became paranoid something was going to happen to her. I don’t know what she thought would happen. She went almost crazy with it.”
He stopped. Whether because he had run out of words, or because he realised telling Claire her sister was crazy was not perhaps the best move, wasn’t clear.
“Then I met Bryony. She understood. She taught Sky, knew how clingy Ruth was. I asked her for advice, initially. Then we got talking and, well. You know the rest. We have a little girl of our own now, and she’s mine.”
“Sky’s still your daughter.” Claire didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to feel sympathy for this man. She didn’t want him to have a reason that made sense. She just wanted him to hurt and be sorry.
“Ruth didn’t want me to stay in touch. She said it would be better just the two of them. I send Sky birthday cards and Christmas cards but I don’t know if they get to her.” He inhaled deeply and wiped his hand across his face as if rubbing away the pain. “She’s looking well. I’m glad to see you taking her out in the world. Ruth keeps her too close. Sky doesn’t need me.”
Claire tried to think before speaking, to decide what to do, to interpret how she felt. Despite her best efforts, she could relate to what Chris had said. It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see Ruth in that role. Their own parents had been so distant and uncaring, it seemed highly plausible that Ruth wouldn’t want to let Sky out of her sight. She turned and looked back at the car, but couldn’t see inside.
“I have to go, Sky will wonder where I am. Try again, Chris. Try harder. Ruth…” She inhaled, then made a decision. “Ruth’s sick. Real sick. Sky might have need of you. Don’t make her an orphan if it comes to that.”
She watched as all the blood drained from Chris’s face, much as it had from Sky’s earlier, and felt a certain satisfaction. Digging into her purse, Claire retrieved a business card and held it out to Sky’s father. He looked into her eyes as if trying to understand her actions, then took the card and held it without looking at it.
“If you need to reach me, or want to speak to Sky – at least for the next week – you have my number. We’re staying in Hunstanton for the weekend.”
Before he could say anything, find an excuse or backtrack, Claire turned and strode back to the car, her heartbeat hammering loudly in her ears.
- My Review Of Terry Pratchett’s “Wee Free Men”… (akrummenacker.wordpress.com)
- Terry Pratchett – Wee Free Men (sffbookreview.wordpress.com)
- And Then I Read: THE WEE FREE MEN by Terry Pratchett (kleinletters.com)
- The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (bookslifewine.wordpress.com)
- Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Might Be The Highest Form of Literature on the Planet (tor.com)
- Magrat: note spelling (vulpeslibris.wordpress.com)