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PFS2012 Book Review: Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Title: Plain Kate
Story Arc: Standalone
Publication: September 1, 2010 by Scholastic
Paperback: 320 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Adventure
Age Group: Middle Grade, Teen
Source: Publicist from Scholastic
Excerpt(s): from p. 185
Content: Verbal Shunning, Bloody Attacks and Violence

A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate ...

A knife-sharp debut novel that leaves its mark.

Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. When Kate's village falls on hard times - crops fail, and even Kate's father falls victim to a deadly fever - the townspeople look for someone to blame, and their eyes fall on Kate.

Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he'll give Kate the means to escape the town that seems set to burn her, and what's more, he'll grant her heart's wish. It's a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes that she can't live shadowless forever -- and that Linay's designs are darker than she ever dreamed.
Even toting my Sob-Fest Verification Kit in reserve in case the rumors were true about the nature of this book, Plain Kate by Erin Bow snuck up behind me and caught me by the throat, forcing me to choke on my grief and pain and the poignancy that is cocooned by this story. I was severely unprepared and sort of smug for most of the book, because while I’d come close, I had shed no tears. Then, it was as if someone had abruptly brought an axe to the dam sealing off the well of sorrow burrowed in my heart—a tremulous barricade already withering under the force of feeling I was trying to keep buried. It burst out of me in shakes and catching breaths, hands trembling as the final pages were turned. And then I could do nothing else but lay wallowing in the blankness of my ceiling, pondering my scars while tightly clutching their maker to my chest. I won’t overcome this book.

I wouldn’t have made a very respectable general. Paranoia had me guarding my flank meticulously, since I was expecting a sly, merciless attack, when all the while, emotional investment was traveling down a more direct path and I couldn’t defend myself against it before it was too late. Scars are good things when the memories that surface aren’t bitter, but the pain beforehand always keeps me scared, wary. Hence my valiant attempt to ward off any during Plain Kate by Erin Bow. The narrator’s voice is an ancient storyteller reminiscing something important, aged and wise and a singer of lyrical sentences, one you would remember during the reading of a bedtime story or an old classic tale. I love those rich voices that lend an air of understated brilliance, quiet truth, and simple familiarity. This is Erin’s silent, very effective net, the one she sprung on me and used for swift capture during those first few pages. Plain Kate by Erin Bow reads like a fairy tale you might’ve missed but could have sworn you’d read before—the story of a girl torn from hope and opportunity, climbing for survival no matter the anguish. However, she does not receive an unobstructed, uncomplicated happily ever after. I would say as she deserves, but Plain Kate by Erin Bow raises the question: in whose hands lies the power to decide who deserves any sort of fate?

Life is life, and tragedy, loss, will strike mercilessly. Mistakes and horrible regrets will be felt. And I loved Kate despite the losses and the lies she believes define her, and in spite of her quick decisions which lead to terrible, frustrating outcomes in her lonely life. It wasn’t sympathy I felt for her—the feeling is nothing new to me—but instead I felt fear. Fear for this brave, scarred, girl of many oddities and unique pieces who simply longs for a place to belong. Fear that she wouldn’t get her wish and a deeper fear that she would lose it once she had it. Her heart’s wish plays such a profound, wrenching role and, oh, man, did it beat the hell out of my already drowning emotions. In Plain Kate by Erin Bow when what you wish is to no longer go it alone, what you get is a talking cat named Taggle. His voice is wise and superior, haughty even, and I adored him more for it, as it gave a voice to the attitude of temperamental felines everywhere. Their friendship is so stunningly heartfelt and yet it still manages to stay true to who each of them are. Taggle’s mentality is true to his animal nature, which can be uncomfortable, disturbingly frank, and comically steadfast. His companionship isn’t contrived or unnaturally humanized. Even so, his loyalty and protection of Kate is powerful, emotional, and beautiful, because those characteristics reach beyond the extent of his capabilities both physically and emotionally. As Kate plainly says, he is more than just a cat.

I won’t lie—while the other characters didn’t come across as superfluous, neither were any of them my focus while reading. The dark, enigmatic stranger who bargains for Kate’ shadow is about the only one I felt for nearly as deeply as I did with Kate. All the magic and charm couldn’t hide his darkness, and all the threats and awful deeds couldn't have made me mistake him for lost, despairing, agonized, even mad soul. Some people refer him to as a love interest, and I partially loathe Erin Bow for luring me into mourning over what could have been by my own perception of their odd relationship.

I believe fans of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo will revel in this Russian-inspired, almost medieval fantasy and recognize the sadness in Kate as they did in Alina. Haggard and burdened by the secrets she’s stowed along the way, Kate ultimately completes the journey to herself, in which she realizes that she’s also more than just Plain Kate Carver, the girl with witch-eyes, bad luck, and blessed skill with a blade. Plain Kate by Erin Bow is a standalone novel, and while the ending isn’t the utmost satisfying for those of us who prefer more clear-cut, specific conclusions, Kate’s story stops at a point in which she knows a stronger self than before, a self that will take her forward into a life that won’t be empty and meaningless and will instead encompass all that it means to live.
When you are carving a narrow point, like the tail of this fish, her father had said to her, big hands over her little ones, and the carving beneath them, this is a time of danger. The knife may slip. It may follow a grain and spoil the line. There may be a flaw deep in the wood that will snap your work in two. You will want to leave the tail thick and crude; that is safer. A master carver will be brave, and trust the wood. Things will find their shape. Kate, My Star. Lift your knife.
Rating: Special Shelf

IN LESS WORDS: Remember when I said I was going to explore more middle grade work? Well, I’m delighted to say that another favorite book of the year has turned out to be middle grade lit, and it’s stunningly poignant, wonderfully emotional, and entirely memorable. Maintaining any kind of objectivity is an impossible goal when you’re reading about a girl torn down by cruelty, beaten by loss, and was raised to care by a beautiful man who always saw the beauty in her—beauty that will be nothing less than a hardship for her to see over the course of her journey beyond the memory of Plain Kate and to a confident, stronger self. You will recognize her from the wrenching beginnings of some fairy tales, only you will leave her not to a conventional happily ever after, but to an ending far more true to that self she’s bound to discover.

  1. The Book Smugglers
  2. Small Review
  3. Bibliophilic Monologues
  4. Good Books and Good Wine
  1. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  2. The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab
  3. Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
  4. The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin

Got something specific in mind? Dare I believe I might NOT have covered something you wish to know? If so, let me know down in the comments section. Comment down below if you're pale because you're a witch or you've traded your shadow for a cat.


Bookworm1858 said...

I found this book so depressing-I was not expecting the sadness based on the cover and it just destroyed me.

Montana G. said...

This sounds really good! I don't read too much middle grade, but I think I'll give this a try :)

Dovile said...

Sounds good. I will read it if I come across a copy. Especially as it's a stand-alone novel, as I don't want to get into yet another series right now.

Lisa! said...

Long live Middle Grade!

Asheley Tart said...

WOW. Your way with words in this review is stunning. Middle Grade sits at the core of my heart! I love it. All of the emotions in it are MORE, so when they are sad, they are more sad. At least, they are to me.