Tag Archives: expectations

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is set in old Russia, long before there was a Soviet Union and even before a Russia existed. There was only the Rus people and they lived scattered, outposts of people in an otherwise hostile world. A world in which the creatures of fairy tales are real, though very few people can see them directly.

Vasya, the daughter of Pyotr, the leader of one of the furthest settlements, is one such person. She can see these creatures everyone since, in old Rus lore, they literally exist everywhere. Every building has such a creature that tends it — the house, the bathhouse, the stables. Vasya, being one of the very few that can see them and thus interact with them, and unburdened by the harsh interpretation that Christianity imposes about them, becomes their friend and learns from them. They teach her the impossible, such as how to talk with animals, and soon she is riding horses bare-back with a skill that rivals the best warriors of the village.

The plot involves some powerful beings from Russian folklore and Vasya’s role in protecting her family from them. Saying more would give it away. However, throughout the story, Vasya is the strongest character, the one that stands up for what is right even if it means being on the wrong end of scorn and, often, punishment. Her strength is juxtaposed with the weaknesses of her step-mother, who can also see the so-called ‘demons.’ In the end, it is Vasya’s willingness to accept the reality around her and her ability to see beyond the social constructs that dictate the lives of everyone else that enable her to be such a strong protagonist. She doesn’t constrain her beliefs and actions on what is right or wrong by social norms, she simply does what she thinks is right.

Vasya’s world is filled with the supernatural, a world that even her closest relatives are almost completely ignorant of. They have their superstitions and such, but they don’t directly interact with the supernatural. Arden does a great job of bringing the supernatural to life in this story as well as juxtaposing Vasya’s existence in it, on the one hand deeply immersed in a world of fairies and on the other the mundane world of humans. Vasya lives in both worlds and, through her initial innocence, is able to do so without any contradiction. To her, both are part of the natural world. For her, the world of people, and the people themselves, are often more frightening than the supernatural creatures she encounters.

Vasya also lives in a time where women were expected to do one of two things: become a wife and mother or join a convent. “I was born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?” She sees much more in the real world and longs for a freedom that simply isn’t an option for women of her time.

The supernatural world is handled deftly by Arden. While ever-present, it isn’t overwhelming either. That is, it adds to the story rather than distract from it. Arden also develops an interesting view on magic. One character tells Vasya “Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.” Magic is looking beyond the possibilities the world imposes on us, whether expectations of what things or of what people are. Either can become more than what they were originally intended if you can look beyond that original purpose.

This is the first of three books that follow the story of Vasya. In this one, we mostly follow her life as a child and her growing into her role in the world, both human and supernatural. It seems like it will be a challenge to retain the innocence that drives a lot of Vasya’s character in this chapter of the story. However, that also means that Vasya is destined for even greater things. We shall see.

Expectations and Drive

On the way to work yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about India.  They were discussing how there is such a fine line between rich and poor in that country, and were interviewing an Indian man who is very poor.  He and his wife scrape every penny they can from their earnings for tuition for their three year old daughter.  “I pray every day that she can lift her family out of poverty,” he said.

My first reaction was to feel sorry for this little girl who has all of these expectations on her before she even knows anything about the world.  Her family is essentially placing all their hope on her, that she can find success enough for the whole family.  This is common enough throughout the world, and similar stories have played themselves here in the United States.  It’s certainly a large burden placed on her little shoulders.

However, as I thought about it more, I looked at it from the other side.  This man and his wife are doing everything they possibly can to ensure their daughter has a brighter future, a better life than they did.  They work hard to give her the opportunities that they didn’t have.  And, while there is a great burden on her, it is only because her family loves her so much to do all they can to make her life the best that they can possibly make it.  They have a drive and desire to better her life.

And I wondered about the US and how it just doesn’t feel like we have that drive any more.  We are content with what we have.  We have good lives, especially in comparison to this Indian family, but we don’t have the drive to be any better.  My generation is possibly the first in the US that is overall worse off than our parents.  We don’t have the ambition to make something better of ourselves.  We are content to be where we are.

My dad, and my mom’s grandparents, came to this country to better themselves and their lot in life.  They gave up everything they knew, all that was comfortable, to go to a foreign land where they didn’t speak the language, to engage in work that they knew little about, all for the promise of a better life.  And, while my mom and dad didn’t place any undue burdens on me, didn’t push me to be anything more than what I wanted to be, they worked hard to ensure I had the chances to do exactly that, be what I wanted to be.

I look around and I see families that have no desire for a better life, no desire to improve their lot.  Their life was good enough for their parents and their grandparents before them, and it will be good enough for their children.  I think that, to some extent, that’s why education is not as highly valued here as I would hope.  Parents don’t care all that much.

I’m very proud of how hard my parents worked to give me the best chances in life that they could.  And, while that little Indian girl has some very large expectations placed on her, it’s only because her family wants what’s best for her too.  I wish we all had a bit of that drive, a bit of that want to better ourselves, to better our lives.  It is that kind of drive that made the US the great nation that it is and I fear that maybe we’ve lost it.