Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is perhaps the most unique story of Discworld.  It is also the series’ first YA title.  Opening a new door for Pratchett in the setting, it was apparently a wide one as he opted to write a second YA novel, The Wee Free Men.  Like Maurice, The Wee Free Men is a book that can easily be enjoyed by the young and old alike.  Tailoring the perspective rather than content, he uses a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves motif to introduce a playground-sized heroine with strong will, the delightful Tiffany Aching.

The Wee Free Men opens with nine-year old Tiffany playing by a stream near her parents’ farm in the Chalk, a very rural region of the Disc.  A basket floats by, but turns out to be a boat oared by a mouthy, mini-blue man covered in tattoos and speaking in a strong Scottish brogue.  He shouts a quick warning to her, but just as quickly floats on.  A strange green creature attacking from the rushes soon thereafter, Tiffany heads home to get her frying pan and some bait to take the creature out.  Her little brother Wentworth unwittingly occupying the role of the latter, she soon regrets the choice as he is stolen away by the Queen of Fairyland in the aftermath of the fight.  A rescue needed, the little blue men return to help Tiffany—perhaps offering more than is needed—to get her brother back.

Called the Nac Mac Feegle, the rough-mannered, blue-skinned pictsies (not pixies!) are the Wee Free Men of the title.  Six inches tall and speedy as the Tasmanian Devil, they rush about, ready to lend a hand—or foot, or fist, or headbutt—depending on the situation.  But the Nac Mac Feegle and their glorious accent is not the only part of Tiffany’s team.  Inherited from Miss Tick (a traveling witch who helps educate Tiffany), there is likewise a talking Toad.  Offering the most helpful (and sarcastic) commentary, it rounds out their little team as they make their way to Fairyland.

Though it may seem so, The Wee Free Men is not the YA version of Equal Rites.  Certainly the two books have elements in common—young girl who wants to be a witch, strange overland adventures, and a coming of age at the core. The plot line, secondary characters, and tone, however, are all wildly different.  There is simply nothing and nobody on the Disc like the Nac Mac Feegle.  Not even Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians have such charming irreverence.  The most delightful of rogues, in fact, Pratchett has been able to spin out three additional Tiffany Aching books featuring the mischievous little blue guys.  So while the knowledge Tiffany gains is of utmost importance to the substance of the book, Daft Willie, Rob, and the rest of the Nac Mac Feegle carry the story—literally and figuratively.

For those concerned that humor will be dumbed down due to the YA stamp, fear not. Pratchett remains Pratchett, and the humor still exists in spades.  See the following great image:

    This is Tiffany, walking back home. Start with the boots. They are big and heavy boots, much repaired by her father, and they belonged to various sisters before her; she wears several pairs of socks to keep them on. They are big. Tiffany sometimes feels she is nothing more than a way of moving boots around.
    Then there is the dress. It has been owned by many sisters as well and has been taken up, taken out, taken down, and taken in by her mother so many times that it really ought to have been taken away.

Pratchett remains intent throughout The Wee Free Men to tell a tale that is both accessible and challenging to young adults.  (There are certainly moments, particularly when the dream-inducing brome play a hand, that the storyline can take a sharp right or left turn that requires full attention, even for grown ups.)  Inevitably adults will find the accessible bits charming and forgivable, and appreciate how Pratchett plays with wisdom.  See the following subversion:

    Miss Tick sniffed. “You could say this advice is priceless,” she said. “Are you listening?”
    “Yes,” said Tiffany.
    “Good. Now…if you trust in yourself…”
    “…and believe in your dreams…”
    “…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on.
    “…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Good-bye.

Pratchett keeping his story earth-bound (Disc-bound?) throughout, Tiffany’s tale, for as fantastically adventurous as it is, has its roots in sound moral values—just like Maurice.  The author also treads a fine line between the limitations of traditional YA literature (i.e. shielding the young from anything resembling “bad”) and fully adult affairs.  There is death, for example, but it is handled evenly, the result bittersweet.  There is drinking of “Special Sheep Liniment”, but it is not reveled in, rather approached from the angle of humor, moderation, and part of the adults’ world. (It goes without saying nine-year old Tiffany is not the one doing shots.)  There is talk of “cussin’” as also being a part of life, but no actual cussing—that is, unless you include the Nac Mac Feegles’ “Crivens!” or the toad’s “Croat!  Most importantly, Pratchett employs balance: a loss of something valuable may have positive effects elsewhere.  (Granny Aching, for example, lets the Nac Mac Feegle steal one of her sheep every now and then knowing the little guys keep away the foxes and wolves.)  In short, it is not a YA fairy tale with idyllic presentation, rather a more realistic look at life through the fun and humor of a fantastic setting—the young perhaps more able to distinguish and synthesize the two than adults.

In the end, The Wee Free Men is delightful, imaginative literature with value for the young and young at heart that.  Like the previous Discworld YA novel The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, it would be perfect for parents and their early teen to read and talk about.  If your values are stiffly conservative, Pratchett’s moderate approach may not garner any approval, but for everybody else, it is a wonderful book.  A wonderful series as well, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, all published later, continue Miss Aching’s story in a fashion similar to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  Pratchett having individual goals for each book, there is no need to fear getting involved in a lengthy series.  Long live the Nac Mac Feegle! 

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