Tag Archives: Andre Norton

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.


“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

263. Andre Norton’s Beast Master

Not every draft post actually gets posted. I started one a year ago in which I asked “What science fiction or fantasy world would you most like to live in?” That’s not the same as which one do you like to read about. I love the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of them. Or, if I were caught in one, I probably would end up dead.

The question never reached the website, but in the draft I answered, “Arzor”, which is the planet in Andre Norton’s Beast Master novels.

In many ways, The Beast Master is the ultimate early Norton. Many of her protagonists are orphans, and Hosteen Storm is a hyper-orphan. He has lost not only his family, but his whole world. He is haunted not only by painful memories, but by an oath sworn during his childhood. He has to choose between the angers of the past and the promise of the future, and in choosing, eventually finds a new family.

Hosteen begins the novel as a man apart, loyal only to his team of mutated animals, with whom he communicates telepathically. This kind of communication is a trope that Norton has used liberally, at least since 1952 with Star Man’s Son. (Incidentally, the first novel I checked out on my first visit to a library.)

Hosteen, half Navaho, half Sioux, chose to enter the Beast Master Corps, where he was teamed with a dune cat, an African eagle, and a pair of meerkats,. This was decades before Timon brought meerkats to everyone’s attention. They trained together, then spent the Xix war engaged in reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Now Earth has been destroyed, and the team is all that Hosteen has left.

He musters out on Arzor, a frontier planet much like his native Arizona. It is exactly what he would have chosen, but in fact he is impelled to go there in pursuit of revenge on a man he has never met. Hosteen will wrestle with himself throughout the book, torn between his oath and his growing respect and liking for the would-be victim and his son Logan.

Arzor is a transmogrified Arizona, with modernized cowboys on variform horses. Frawns look a lot like bighorn sheep; the yoris is clearly a distant relative of a kimodo dragon; the norbies are really, really tall Indians with horns. If you are inclined to cynicism (as I normally am) this could come across as a crude mashup. I have to fall back on my favorite phrase, “Somehow, Norton makes it work.”

For my taste, the trick is to come just close enough to the familiar, while keeping just the right admixture of the outré. It’s a tricky, narrow path, and nobody does it better than Norton.

When Hosteen first meets the man he has sworn to kill, he turns aside from the confrontation for reasons he does not understand himself. He subsequently becomes involved in an expedition to the Arzorean back country, which postpones his confrontation, but becomes a deadly adventure in itself. He and his team, with the aid of his would-be victim’s son, overcome an old and deadly enemy.

Finally, Hosteen’s oath can no longer ignored . . . but, even though the novel is nearing sixty years old, I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Three years later, Norton wrote Lord of Thunder, a beast master sequel. which was quite good, though not up to the original. Four decades later, she wrote three more in the series in conjunction with Lyn McConchie: Beast Master’s Ark, Beast Master’s Circus, and Beast Master’s Quest. It seems that Norton liked Arzor as well.

The Beastmaster films are unrelated to the original, although the title is ripped off and the animal characters (two ferrets, an eagle and a panther vs. Norton’s two meerkats, an eagle and a dune cat) certainly looks suspicious. Caveat view-or.

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.

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.

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.

237. Rain

dscn4753This is a vernal pond, a few miles from my home. It will fill with water by Christmas and be dry again by Easter.

Let’s take a break from the world of politics and check into the latest meteorological phenomenon.

It rained last night.

That may not be a big deal to you, but here in the foothills of the Sierras it represents the change from one season to another in a climate that only has two seasons – dry and wet.

Our last rain came in mid-April. Six months without a drop. You may have heard that we are in a drought, but this is a different phenomenon. It is normal here for the last rain to come in mid-April, and normal for the first rain of the rainy (if that is the word) season to come in mid-October. Our drought is because we haven’t been getting enough rain between October and April.

So what does that have to do with my world of writing science fiction? Everything, really.

When I was young, my three favorite SF authors were Clarke, Heinlein, and Norton. Clarke’s stories always took place in artificial environments. Heinlein’s characters inhabited space ships, orbiting habitats, or frontier worlds; it didn’t matter, as long as they could talk incessantly, they were happy. Andre Norton characters, whether they were explorers, soldiers, spies, or interstellar traders, always spent their time outdoors, in wilderness or something like wilderness. The only cities you were likely to see in a Norton novel were in ruins, or the slums of the Dipple which any one of several young men were quick to flee from, usually into more trouble than they could imagine.

That suited me just fine. Her worlds were my world. In rural Oklahoma, I spent from May to September every year outside, usually driving a tractor, through rain, wind, dust, and heat. There were years when I watched the crops dry up and die under the relentless sun – and watched my Dad see six months work disappear before his eyes. There were other years when the rains came on time, the crops were good, and the pastures grew up heavy with grass; when the nights were a symphony of insect whirrings and the days were filled with bird songs and butterflies. Cliché? Paradise always sounds like a cliché.

It was the only life I knew, and I loved it, good years and bad, but I had to leave it, first for college, then to make a living. When I wrote my first book, I sent my protagonist into the mountains and lost him there, then let him find his way out. For my second book, Jandrax, I marooned a shipload of colonists on a barren, unexplored world, and watched them find a way to survive. In Cyan, coming out in a few months, I send a crew of ten to explore a rich new planet, then send them back to colonize.

I lived in a small city for most of my life. I could write about cities, but I don’t want to. My world is the world of nature –  even if it is nature on another planet.

So— it rained last night. About an inch, which isn’t much, even by Oklahoma standards, but the foothills only get thirteen inches in an average year. All the creekbeds remain empty and the hills remain covered with tall, dead grass in shades of brown, but within the soil, the change has begun. Seeds that have lain dormant since spring will be sprouting now, out of sight, and within a week there will be a faint haze of green, invisible beneath the long grass, but showing in the road ditches. This year’s grass will begin to flex its vegetive muscles, forcing its way upward through last year’s dead roots. Unnoticed, those roots will begin to loosen and be shoved aside until one day, a month from now, seemingly all at once, the old year’s grasses will tilt and fall, to disappear beneath the new green.

Suddenly all the brown will be gone and the new year’s grass will clothe every hillside. While the snows of winter cover the midwest, these Sierra foothills will be spring green, and the wildflowers will return.

128. Science Fiction in the Wild

If you are what you eat, I used to be beefsteak, fried okra, and hominy. That comes from growing up in Oklahoma. I also lived outdoors most of the hours of every spring, summer, and fall day, and way too many hours of every winter day. That comes from growing up on a working farm.

If you are what you read, then I used to be an Andre Norton protagonist, at least in my imagination. Although I never met or corresponded with her, Andre Norton was something of a long distance mentor.

Alice Mary Norton legally changed her name to Andre Norton early on, in an era when being a woman was no help to a science fiction writer. I didn’t know that when I first read her; I thought Andre Norton was a man. Not that I thought about it much, but she didn’t write like a girl. Looking back, I see that she actually wrote like a person, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then.

One reason Norton got away with writing gender neutral fiction was that her characters spent most of their time alone. Even in their relationships with others of their own kind, they were loners, if not complete outcasts.

Star Man’s Son was the first Norton I read. In it, Fors spent all but a few pages on a quest away from his people; that was a pattern to which Norton frequently returned. I could easily identify with the solo quest while I spent endless hours alone on a tractor. The only variations in my daily life were whether I was pulling a disk or a hay rake, and which Norton novel was replaying in my head, forty years before someone invented the iPod.

Every time Shann Lantee on Warlock, or Naill Renfro on Janus, or any of a dozen other young men found himself stranded alone, or nearly alone, on an alien world, I could look up from my tractor seat at the Oklahoma prairie and say, “Yup, been there.”

The best thing about Norton’s characters was that they didn’t whine about being alone. They liked it. So did I.

I didn’t live in a city until I went to college. I spent my adult life living in the suburbs of a reasonably small city, and taught school in a very small town. As soon as I could retire, I moved to a few acres in the foothills. I would move further out if I could afford it.

I was born not liking cities, and my opinion never changed. It should be no surprise that my first novel was about a hunter surviving alone in the woods, or that my first science fiction novel was about a hundred or so humans stranded on an alien world (Jandrax, presently appearing in Serial). My three fantasy novels have a rural and medieval feel. David Singer, in A Fond Farewell to Dying, is a mountain boy who has to go urban to get his life’s work done. And Cyan, due out soon, begins with ten explorers on an empty world, then continues with the story of the peopling that world by hyper-urbanized refugees from an overcrowded Earth.

You write what you’ve lived.