The Butcher Birds: Lloyd Alexander, “The Kestrel”

The Butcher Birds: Lloyd Alexander, “The Kestrel” December 29, 2014

I recently read a q&a with two authors in which one of them, Rachel Manija Brown, was asked for recommendations of books on post-traumatic stress. She’s written some really clear & useful posts on the subject, so I was interested in what she’d say–and especially intrigued when she cited a children’s fantasy novel as “one of my favorite depictions of how war can make people completely lose their minds, and how some of them come back from that and some don’t.”

I’d read a couple of the Prydain Chronicles in my day, but none of the Westmark novels. The Kestrel is the middle book of a trilogy, but it stands just fine on its own I think. It’s a brisk novel which takes place in one of those crypto-European countries with recognizable morality but no religion. (That genre convention is a bit sleazy when you think about it.) The characters range from beggar children to noblemen; there are journalists and turncoats, soldiers and partisans. Lots of simplified but still intriguing politics and economics, lots of romance, some republican propaganda. The plot rattles along fast and comes together with a very satisfying collision at the climax. This book ends on a note of ambiguity, without resolution, which is one reason I liked reading it on its own, without the first and last books in the trilogy.

Alexander fairly programmatically constructs and then dismantles the romantic image of war. In a way, that dismantling is the real plot-arc of the book, the spine connecting its various characters and events. It’s an excellent novel; and yes, it’s a bit of a children’s guide to PTSD.

Will it “make” a kid anti-war? Ah, I have no idea how kids read books. When I was little I loved this book about Mary, Queen of Scots; the narrator was a preteen, I think, and he betrayed or in some way failed the queen he loved, and spent the next several months drunk and miserable. And what I took away from this was, “Admirable people you overidentify with totally use self-destructive drinking to express and expiate guilt! NOTE THIS DOWN FOR LATER.” Portrayals of damage, or models for “how to be damaged,” can have their own attraction.

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