Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Paperback: 360 pages
· Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2008
· Price: $15.95
· ISBN-10: 0981473989
· ISBN-13: 978-0981473987
As if inviting us into a warm and cozy room, the first page opens like a door, and we are greeted by an elderly woman who invites the reader in to tell the tale of her life. Somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Poland, around the year 1929, a little girl called Judy Baumann (now the elderly woman) lived in poverty with her mama, her papa and her brother Johann.
Little Judy longed for the woods. Not just longing to play among the trees, but more—she felt the forest call to her in the way that one senses the call of home, almost like a siren call. It wasn’t so much that her family didn’t love her, but her life with them is harsh and anything but nurturing. Judy wants something more … right.
When Herr Schuler, a brusque neighbor, molests her, her parents shrug it off. The man has influence; he shouldn’t be angered. Even her mother sends her the message that she must tolerate such things, that there are “man dangers” for women in life, and that is how it is.
Judy works hard, tries to please her parents, wants to bring a little brightness into their bleak and impoverished life, yet is forever misunderstood or brushed off. It is difficult for the reader not to feel some sympathy for Judy’s mother, who toils away as a seamstress and quietly supports the family, even while letting Judy’s father think that they survive due to his efforts. Yet she borders on, and sometimes crosses into, abusiveness with her daughter. No doubt it is all she knows, the best she knows, and thinks it wise to keep her daughter’s expectations of life to the absolute minimum or risk disappointment such as she knows. It’s parenting that kills the child’s spirit.
Judy’s spirit will not be quashed. She finds it ever more impossible to stay away from the woods surrounding their home. Her father builds an ugly iron fence around the house to keep her in after her repeated attempts to run to the woods. Her mother warns her of the dangers of the forest, telling horror stories in an attempt to instill fear. And still, the little girl cannot resist the call of the forest. Again and again, she tries to escape, and at last succeeds.
It is then that the true enchantment begins, with Judy finding a new family in the forest—of animals and other fairy creatures, of kind witches and beings that shape shift from animal to human and back again, and talking trees. The author paints this world with such vivid colors that it comes alive in the mind’s eye, and one feels as welcome there as if finding home as well, on the page. The contrast between Judy’s two worlds couldn’t be more stark.
Judy grows up in the forest, from girl into woman, and much unlike her human family, here she is raised with kindness, compassion and encouragement. She is raised without fear and without instilling fear. Woven throughout her lessons from the forest folk are an acceptance of the cycle of life and death, a woman’s role in society and in family, a kind of spiritual and equally physical liberation. Nature is shown utmost respect, understood as a living thing that sustains us, and plants and animals as having innate value. In short, many of those lessons we’ve lost in contemporary society.
On the cycle of life and death:
“Death is a natural part of life, little one. If candles burned eternally, you’d have to sleep in their light. And if people and creatures didn’t die, no one could have joy of a baby in the house. We have to make room for that which is new while honoring that which was … Mourn the loss of your friend. But understand that your tears are for yourself. “ (Page 250-251)
On the role of pain and how life is sustained by life:
“’Nobody gets through life without causing pain … We kill to survive.’ She gestured to her plate. ‘… the wheat in these pancakes was once a living thing. The apples were too. Life feeds upon life. That’s just the way it is … We have to do harm to stay alive, and so we do it with reverence for the sacrifice the plants agreed to make for us.
‘Doing what is needed to fulfill your destiny is another means of survival. You could try to deny the work you’re destined to do, but you’d be wretched for the whole of your life. And the person you worry about hurting now would suffer even more for your pain.” (Page 263)
On women’s subjugation to men when selling their bodies:
“The sin you committed was against yourself. You’ve damaged your body, but more importantly, you’ve done great harm to your soul … There’s nothing sinful in joyful, loving sex. But none of this has brought you anything even vaguely resembling joy … You’ve accepted the notion that a woman can be sold, or worse, rented by the hour, and so you insult and diminish yourself … you are not a commodity.” (Page 277)
Many of these life lessons come from Matka Lasu, a kind of grandmotherly elder witch with a kind heart. It is not only Judy who comes to her in the forest for healing, but an ever present parade of broken women and girls. Many of them are pregnant and have nowhere to go. Others are abused or driven by hunger and poverty. All are helped, all are healed, even if some must die—in the cycle of life.
Forest Song: Finding Home is one in a series of books by Vila SpiderHawk. It’s the second by this author I’ve read. SpiderHawk’s work has a haunting, soothing quality, like a warming balm, finding those aching places most all girls and women have and resonating with understanding. It’s a story that can be read by any age group, from preteen to elderly adult, and still find enjoyment and value. While life lessons abound, they are delivered gently, and interwoven seamlessly into the storyline, so that they do not read as preachy or didactic, but rather as the logical steps along a young girl’s hero quest to fulfill her potential.