Monthly Archives: November 2016

262. Andre Norton’s Star Gate

When I say Star Gate, I don’t mean the TV series. I also don’t mean the movie it was based on. I mean the original, from decades earlier, a novel by Andre Norton.

Andre Norton’s Star Gate came out in 1958 but It didn’t make it to any library I frequented. It didn’t enter my life until a decade later when cheap SF and fantasy paperbacks became generally available. Someone has an original edition for sale on the internet for $299, but at that price, I’ll never see the hardback.

Kincar s’Rud is called to the deathbed of the chief and kinsman he expects to succeed, only to find that it is not to be. He is told that he is only half Gorthian. His father was one of the Star Lords from Earth. To avoid bringing a bloody division to his clan, Kincar must leave succession to a hated cousin.

After generations on Gorth, the people of Earth have departed, but Kincar is told that a few remain, preparing to work out a separate destiny. Among these are his half-kinsmen, whom he must join. On his way he examines the few things given him as heritage and finds a Tie, a green stone amulet that is a tie to the three gods who rule his world.

Kincar is awed to be in the presence of Star Lords, and it takes him some time to adapt to their presence. This remnant consists of those who have formed so deep a bond with Gorth that they cannot bear to leave, even though all other Earth men have gone. Despite the good that Earth men have done on Gorth over the years, they eventually became convinced that their presence was warping the culture of the native Gorthians, and that they must, from conscience, depart. The few who did not take the ships out are also planning to leave, but by a different route.

They are pursued by native Gorthians as they try to find a place of temporary refuge, where they can construct a gate which will take them to an alternate Gorth where the native population never evolved; a place where they can remain in the land they love without doing harm. The gate is constructed hurriedly while under attack. All pass through, but Kincar is struck down harshly. The Tie he wears has reacted badly with the off world technology of the gate.

Here is classic Norton, with a medieval culture in conflict with an advanced technological one, and with real magic residing uneasily alongside real science. Star Gate is truly science fiction, but the fantasy touches that made the Witch World novels so appealing are already in place. (Aside: in the first Witch World novel, Simon Tregarth enters that world through a gate, which may be magical or alien technology. Norton never says which, but it’s probably magical, considering where he ends up.)

Kincar and his kinsmen emerge from the gate in a Gorth, but which Gorth? They have to explore to find out, and it quickly becomes obvious that they are not in the one they wanted. In this new Gorth, the Star Lords never departed. Worse, these Star Lords are cruel tyrants who have enslaved the native population.

Kincar’s group decides to delay building another gate to pursue their dream world. Since Star Lords have so tainted this Gorth, they feel obligated to set things right. This brings Kincar into conflict with his evil alternate father and into an alliance with his hunted alternate self.

*****

A decade after I first read Star Gate, I ripped Norton off for one useful bit. On our Earth, if you had an ancestor named David who’s father was named John, he would be David Johnson or David Johnsen or David Jensen or David Johns. On Gorth, he would be David s’John. I liked that so well that I made it the basis for kinship terminology on the World of the Menhir. Thanks, Andre.

Raven’s Run 52

We retired to a small cafe on the square behind Sacre Coeur for wine. Eric was a jovial companion. I enjoyed him almost as much as Raven did, although I would have felt more comfortable if he had had a girlfriend with him. Blue-eyed, blond, tanned, and ruggedly handsome, with Raven hanging on his every word – I was feeling an irritation that had become all too familiar.

Raven and I were living frugally, camping outside Paris and taking a bus into the city. What a typical American tourist would spend in a day, would keep us alive for two weeks. On the ladder of affluence, we were near the bottom.

Eric was one critical step lower. We knew that we could not eat in a restaurant; Eric did not know where his next meal was coming from. We knew that if we were not careful, our money would soon run out. Eric was broke any day he did not make enough tips to cover that day’s expenses. He was staying in the youth hostel on Blvd. Jules-Ferry, but would have to move on soon. They had a four day limit in midsummer. “It doesn’t matter, anyway,” he laughed. “I’m not making enough to eat and sleep. Paris is a tough gig.”

Eric was originally from Bodö, just north of the Arctic Circle, and had gone to school in Oslo. Now he was a refugee from the winter-long northern nights, but there was a homesick longing in his voice as he described the beauties of a northern summer. Raven hugged my arm and said, “We have to go there!”

“Suits me.”

“If you go to Bodö,” Eric said, “you must see the maelstrom. It’s not far from town.”

“Maelstrom?”

“A gigantic whirlpool. It inspired your writer Poe to write his Descent into the Maelstrom.”

Raven had bought a cheap camera in Nice. Now she talked a waiter into taking a picture of the three of us, promising to give a print to Eric.

It was after midnight when we got back to the campground. We had to take the metro to the end of the line and then take a bus out to the edge of the countryside. I had forgotten to pay last night, so I stopped in at the office to correct matters. We were on the list of delinquents, and the manager made nasty remarks under his breath until I paid for the rest of the week. Then he dropped the matter, satisfied, and went on to his next customer.

The French have a worldwide reputation for being actively unfriendly. It isn’t true. They just don’t give a damn if you live or die. If you want people to like you, you probably won’t be happy in France. On the other hand, if you can go about your business independently, not expecting courtesy from strangers, you will do fine. I never have any trouble in France because I don’t expect much, and that is exactly what I get.

The campground was a sea of tents, jammed edge to edge with their guy lines overlapping. Walking among them was like stepping over limbs in a blown down forest. Ours was a small blue two-man dome. I stayed outside until Raven had undressed and crawled into her sleeping bag, taking off my shoes and shirt while I waited. Then she squeezed over against one side of the tent while I struggled out of my pants. Once we were both horizontal, the tent was big enough, but dressing and undressing on a rainy day was a major undertaking. Fortunately, it had not rained much so far.

An hour later, I woke to the sound of rain. more tomorrow

261. Andre Nortonʼs Sword Trilogy

This post and yesterday’s are about the Sword Trilogy, Andre Norton’s first multi-book story. You can read the posts in either order.

Some of Andre Nortonʼs earliest work came during and just after World War II, and today is called the Sword Trilogy. I reviewed the last and best of the three books yesterday. A few are available today in paperback reprints, but the original hardbacks mostly ended up in libraries and command high prices today. Fortunately, all three are available as e-books, if you can tolerate a boat load of typos.

The Sword is Drawn came first in 1944, and was one of Norton’s earliest books; the fifth, if bibliographies can be trusted. My library rescue copy was printed by Oxford University Press, London, 1946, presumably under wartime austerities. It is a slender, ragged volume that needs to be read with a delicate touch.

In a forward to the book, Norton praises the World Friends’ Club for their work in establishing “pen friend” relations between youths of various countries before 1939, and adds:

Now again letters are finding their way by sea and air all round the world. It is possible that in these friendships lies the hope of lasting peace and the vision of a new world.

The four sections of the novel are set off by letters from the young protagonist Lorens van Norries to his American friend Lawrence Kane. Lorens is the grandson of Joris van Norries, head of the House of Norries, renowned jewelers and bankers, but he has been raised as an outcast. In the opening paragraphs, Lorens visits his grandfather’s deathbed and finds that he has been raised away from the family for a reason. His grandfather has foreseen the coming of the Nazis and now entrusts Lorens with the location of the family treasure which he is to dedicate to regaining the Netherland’s freedom. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s are not fooled, and Lorens has to run for his life. He is transported to England by Dutch smugglers, turned underground fighters.

Lorens ends up in Java, still a Dutch possession with a House of Norries presence, and there the war catches up to him again as the Japanese invade. He fights his way through the jungle and ends up fleeing by air toward Australia, where his plane is shot down and he is crippled. Heroes who are physically or emotionally crippled, and fight through anyway seems to be a Norton specialty.

Healed, but unable to fight in the traditional manner, Lorens has an interlude in America where he enlists an underground organization to transport him back into occupied Holland. There he recovers the treasure entrusted to him and uses it to advance the Allied cause.

The Sword is Drawn is a disjointed book, a round-the-world stumble back to where it started. This may be a problem for some readers; I find it a strength, as it mimics the chaos of war. The Sword is Drawn is a moody book, informed by the vision of a people who have been ground down and are still fighting back.

And then the war was over. The second book of the Sword Trilogy, Sword in Sheath,  came out in 1949 and has a mood in stark contrast to the first. Lawrence Kane – sometimes called Kane, sometimes Dutch, but never Larry – and Sam Marusaki, are back from service in WWII which included OSS work. They are called in unofficially, ostensibly to find a missing airman but actually to look for Naziʼs who had gone to earth in the East Indies after the war. Kane is the pen-pal to whom Lorens van Norreys sent all those letters and, sure enough, van Norreys shows up by chapter three, where he and Kane meet face-to-face for the first time. At this meeting we find out that, after the close of the first book, van Norreys spent the remainder of the war in the Dutch underground.

Every verbal exchange between Kane and Sam is couched in light banter, which somehow, unbelievably, still sounds like Norton. Lorens, Kane, and Sam set out on a Dutch tramp steamer to explore the area around the Celebes, where they fall in with Abdul Hakroun, a pirate who is willing to fight Nazis if there is a profit in it for him. Several mysteries entangle them until they find a lost civilization, a missing treasure, and a stranded Nazi sub. All this sounds very predictable for an espionage novel, but Norton’s touch saves it. Still, it is the weakest of the three books.

Raven’s Run 51

Chapter Fourteen

We met Eric on our third day in Paris. It was evening. We had spent the day doing the classic tourist rounds, with morning at the Versailles, a late afternoon stop at the Eiffel Tower, and then the long walk up from the Champs Elyse to Monmarte, where the architecture was lovely and the vaunted street artists would have been kicked out of Disneyland for incompetence.

Eric was set up at the base of the steps that lead up to Sacre Couer, with his violin case at this feet, playing gypsy tunes on a Hardanger fiddle. That was a feat of cultural integration about the equivalent of Sioux in full headdress playing accordion, but Eric made it work.

We sat down on the steps to listen. Raven said, “What is he playing? That isn’t a regular violin.”

“Hardanger fiddle, from the Hardanger region of Norway. An old Norwegian fellow in the town where I grew up used to play one.” It had four sympathetic strings that ran beneath the fingerboard, an extended pegbox, and instead of a scroll it had the carved head of a stylized lion. It was heavily decorated with intricate ink drawings.

“Where is Hardanger?” Raven wanted to know. I explained that it was near Bergen, and she said, “Will you take me there?”

Her eyes were glowing. She had been frenetically gay since we reached Paris. I enjoyed her happiness and her energy, but there was an underlying note of falseness to it. I said, “Sure. Tomorrow?”

“No, silly. Someday.”

“Someday it is.”

Monmarte is a hilltop community where the steps of Sacre Coeur form a sort of informal amphitheater for street musicians. As Eric played on, Paris made a hazy backdrop behind him. He was quite good, and it had been a long day. We were both content to watch the sun go down and listen. When he finally finished his set, Raven whispered,”Can we afford something for him?”

“Sure. Street musicians have a hard life.” I passed her a twenty franc note and followed her over as she dropped it into the case. 

He looked up, then looked harder. Raven is spectacular. He said, “Grazie, Signorina.”

“Not Italian,” I informed him. “American Hispanic.”

“Ah. Then gracias and thank you.” He looked at me and added, “You are both American?”

“Yes.”

“Of you, I would have said Scottish.”

“Scottish ancestry, American nationality. I’m Ian Gunn and this is Raven Cabral.”

He said he was charmed, but I’m sure he meant by Raven. His name was Eric Sangøy. He spoke English with a clipped British accent, for which he apologized. In Norwegian high schools, he explained, one took either British English or American English as a second language, and he had chosen British.

“Raven and I were admiring your fiddle, as well as your playing,” I said.

Eric passed it to Raven for inspection. It was well worn but the ink drawings were supple and intricate. He explained where it came from and how it differed from a violin. Raven listened intently, as if I had not just explained. more tomorrow

260. Early Andre Norton: At Sword’s Point

This is not bait and switch. This week will be devoted to early Nortons, but the news of Fidel Castro’s death makes a few timely words necessary.

This morning I watched some of Castro’s victims being interviewed, people of middle age who were forced to flee their homes as children. Many were still mourning the loss of parents as their families were separated when they fled to America. It begs the question: how can the expulsion of Cubans from Cuba be wrong, and the mass deportation of undocumented American residents be right?

*          *          *          *          *

This post and tomorrow’s are about the Sword Trilogy, Andre Norton’s first multi-book story. The other posts this week are also devoted to very early Nortons.

In my library (spare bedroom) there is a shelf of books on languages, and prominent there is my collection of books on how to teach yourself Dutch or, more properly, Nederlandish. Why Dutch? Why not German which I sort of learned in high school, or Hindi which I kind of learned in college? I could give you logical reasons, but they wouldn’t be honest. The truth is, I fell in love with the Netherlands, and a Norton novel was the cause.

The book was At Sword’ Point. I read it in high school and I re-read it every few years after that until the last library discarded their last copy. Then I bought it used through mail-order. Naturally, it turned out to be a discarded library book. I have it on the desk as I type.

Quinn Anders shivered as he limped up a moss-greened walk to the square New England house and raised his hand to the polished brass eagle doing bored duty as a knocker.

In the first sentence we know that Quinn is not a fire breathing super hero. He shivers. He is also not a perfect physical specimen. He limped. We learn later that he has suffered from polio, a disease common in the era, and that his scholarly nature comes from time spent bedridden as a child. By the time Norton tells us this, we want to know. It is not a narrative intrusion, but an answer to questions she has already teased into our minds.

She also informs us that she is an old fashioned writer, not afraid to use more words than are necessary (the polished brass eagle doing bored duty as a knocker, for God’s sake) and that her writing will be circuitous. That’s Norton. If you don’t like that first sentence, you had better go read someone else.

It worked for that era (and for the multitude of Norton fans). When the novel was published in 1954, the Soviets were consolidating their hold on Eastern Europe and had just detonated their first H bomb. The missile race and the space race were in the near future and escaped Nazis filled popular literature.

Quinn Anders is seeking help in finding out what happened to his older brother, killed in an auto “accident” in the Netherlands. In fact, his brother was part of an unofficial underground, headed by Lorens van Norries, whom you will meet tomorrow; the group came together in resistance to the Nazis, and has changed enemies to resist the Soviets. Quinn goes to  the Netherlands to finish the book his late father began on an obscure order of knights from the Middle Ages. At the same time he is looking for clues to his brother’s death, and to the ancient, gem encrusted porcelain knight that was his brother’s last gift.

He succeeds, of course. No spoiler alert needed for that statement. He also finds himself accepted by a band of like minded adventurers. That is, he finds a family, which is a familiar pattern in Norton, and in young adult literature as a whole.

At Sword’ Point is well plotted and satisfying, but what lifts it above other Norton works is the brooding atmosphere of the Netherlands, half medieval and half modern. I fell in love with the place. It didn’t hurt that Lorens and Kane had had lives of their own in earlier books, which I discovered afterward. You’ll hear about them tomorrow.

Raven’s Run 50

The picture next to it was stranger still, subtler, and therefore more terrifying. Here the woman was crowded up into the corner of the picture, but still filling most of it. Her eyes were huge and catlike, her skin as pure as alabaster, and covered. She wore a cloak of bird wings, that at the same time were a part of her. The short upper feathers surrounded her face like a ruff and the long pinions trailed down her front like arms, covering all but a hint of cleavage. A bit of tail showed from behind, black tipped white feathers. Below her, part of her, though it could never have connected with her human parts in any conventional anatomy, was a single bird’s foot, orange and russet colors shining like jewels, with huge bloody talons. Her front teeth showed in an ingenuous half smile. There was a tiny spot of blood marring the white perfection of her cheek and a thin, double runnel of blood came from the corner of her mouth, disappeared beneath her sharp chin and reappeared to trace its way down her throat, between the hint of her pale breasts and disappear beneath the pinions. The white feathers which were her arms and her cloak were bespotted with blood in thin red circles surrounded by radial spatterings, blood that had struck with force and clung. Behind her was the sea, with a clutch of twisted, surrealistic islands. On one of the islands was a wrecked ship with red sails. No survivors could be seen; she had eaten them all.

The painting was called The Satiated Siren.

Raven tugged me away from the room and out of the museum. Her face was hollow and her mouth tight. She said, “I want to go back to the beach. Now.”

We went. When we reached the beach, she ran ahead of me down the line of hard sand where the water reaches the shore. I caught up, but she waved me away, so I followed twenty feet behind while she walked off her attack of the horrors. Finally she reached the place beneath le Chateau where the beach turns rocky and sat looking out to sea. I sat beside her and took her hand. There were tears in her eyes. She said, “Am I like that?”

“What?”

“Like those pictures.”

“No. Of course not.”

She just shook her head. Then she began to cry outright, little snuffling sobs that came from way down. I pulled her closer and she collapsed against me with her arms around my waist. We stayed that way for a long time.

#          #          #

We did not make love that night, nor in the morning. Raven remained withdrawn until the second night, and when she came to me then, there was a tentativeness about her that I had not seen before.

When our lovemaking was finished, and she lay naked next to me, she said, “Take me away from here. Take me to Paris.” And I did. more tomorrow

259. Turkeys Under the Oak Tree


dscn0719dscn0693These birds were photographed on a spring drive through the foothills, about twenty miles from my house. The puffed up, greeting card version is what the males look like in season, when they are strutting their stuff and looking for love. The other bird is what most turkeys look like, most of the time.

You are reading this on Thanksgiving, but I am writing on September 27, about something that happened yesterday. My wife came to the door of the little building out back where I work and said, “Come here. Quietly.” There were ten wild turkeys eating bugs and acorns along the east side of the house.

We don’t get turkeys very often right up to the house, although seeing them in the neighborhood is a common occurrence. We stood for twenty minutes watching in the hundred degree heat of the tag end of summer before they casually wandered off.

Turkeys are the symbol of Thanksgiving, but I was thankful to see them because wild things fill my life with joy.

I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma in another century. I worked long hours when I was growing up, but I worked outdoors, so it might have well have been play. The music that filled my life was the churr of cicadas on summer evenings and the howl of coyotes echoing through the frosty night air in winter.

I left the farm for college, then spent my adult life in a small city, and moved to the foothills when I retired. Now my human neighbors are near enough for help in emergencies, but far enough away that I don’t hear them when they fight. I don’t even know if they fight.

Several times I have seen packs of coyotes running through my yard. Once a mother duck with nine ducklings following single file paraded through. Deer come in from time to time. They mostly prefer the low ground, and we live on a hill, but they come for water as the long days of summer dry out the last of their water holes. I keep water in bird baths for the birds, and water basins on the ground for everybody else.

The deer also have an uncanny knack of knowing when the tomatoes are ripe. Oh, well.

I see a bobcat about once a year, somewhere nearby. Twice they have come into our yard. Once I looked out the window to see a bobcat in the fenced back yard where stray cats stay out of reach of coyotes. My wife and I watched out the window as he sauntered along, unaware of us, then casually jumped the six foot fence without touching it.

We were even visited one holiday by the Christmas Pig. It was a three hundred pound porker who had obviously escaped from some farmer. I saw him several times after, so I’m maintaining hope that he was never found, and escaped becoming bacon and sausage.

So, happy Thanksgiving to you. And also to the turkeys and ducks and bobcats and raccoons and possums and the one lone pig.

In my house, Thanksgiving means turkey (from the supermarket, of course), stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie. Being thankful means looking out my window and never knowing what kind of critter might be looking back.