Robin McKinley, Deerskin (Ace, 1993)

This is one seriously dysfunctional family.

In Robin McKinley"s author's note, she explains that Deerskin is based on a fairy tale by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault. His "Donkeyskin" is frequently excluded from anthologies or is sanitized by modern writers because of its horrific subject matter -- incestuous rape.

This awareness of atrocities to follow makes the childhood of Princess Lissla Lissar even more disturbing. As the only child of "the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms" and the brash young prince who wins her by retrieving an unfallen leaf from the tree of joy and an unfallen apple from the tree of sorrow, Lissar is all but ignored because of her parents' obsessive affection for each other. The couple is adored by all their subjects until this exquisite queen falls ill.

On her deathbed, she exacts from her distraught husband a promise to remarry only a woman who equals the dying queen's radiant beauty. Unfortunately, now 17 years old, Lissar is just such a beauty, blossoming in the image of her mother with glossy black hair highlighted by hidden red fires. All too soon her father, with all the rights of a king, declares his intention to marry her.

At this dark and threatening point in the story, the first hints of mysticism appear. The obsessive king's advisors are repulsed by his proposition to marry his own daughter, but --- rather than attempt to rescue the young girl -- they assume that Lissar must have cast a spell on her father to cause this insanity.

McKinley follows Perrault's pattern with the devastatingly brutal rape scene, but Deerskin is ultimately a story of hope and renewal, a love story between a woman and her dog. Indeed, the neglected princess isn't even named for the readers until a faraway prince, Ossin, gives her a puppy after the death of her mother. Lissar and her fleethound, Ash, are instantly inseparable, and it is Ash who provides her with the will to live and to flee the horrors of her homeland.

After traveling far from her kingdom and surviving a solitary winter, Lissar encounters The Lady. This magical black and white vision assists the amnesia-stricken princess by granting her a new identity, the gift of time to heal, and an indestructible white deerskin dress. When Deerskin, as she now calls herself, reenters society, the people identify her as the mythical Moonwoman for her white-haired appearance, her abilities to soothe animals and find lost youngsters, and her fleet-footed, four-legged companion.

Like its fairy tale precursor, Deerskin has a significant moral. Throughout the novel, the king and his family of the sixth kingdom represent a sensible contrast to the proud, rich and beautiful elitists of Lissar's homeland. This is the kingdom of Ossin and his fleethounds, and it is the place where Lissar finds love and acceptance in the humble work of the royal kennels. It is inevitably the setting where Lissar must finally heal her wounds, confront her father and regain memories of her past life as a princess.

McKinley's Lissar is a constantly evolving character. From a child enthralled with stories of her parents' courtship, she progresses to a fearful teen who's noticed a dark spark in her widowed father's eyes. Later, as a confident dog keeper and friend to Prince Ossin, she's bewildered by assumptions that she is the moon goddess and is confused by flashbacks to royal pageantry she can no longer recall. The aspects of her character are all believable, but it's the incomparable love between the woman and her dog that gives the story focus and its most suspenseful moments.

The novel breathes through McKinley's exceptionally vivid images, especially the barefooted Deerskin sprinting through tall grassy meadows surrounded by a shadowy pack of lithe dogs. With a dreamlike quality and a gritty theme, Deerskin demands the reader's attention.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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