Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Ozark Trilogy, by Suzette Haden Elgin

A slightly dotty 80s fantasy trilogy you've probably never heard of — why has it stuck with me all these years?

The Ozark Trilogy

Doubleday, 1981, 535 pages

When Baby Terrence McDaniels is snatched from his basket at church, Responsible of Brightwater Kingdom knows that more than mere mischief is afoot on the planet Ozark. It was almost comical when milk began souring on Mondays and mirrors shattered inexplicably. But now Responsible sees the abduction as the wrong use of magic — a treachery connected to the forthcoming Jubilee, the 500th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the confederation of Ozark's states. Indeed, she suspects that factions may tear apart the Confederacy itself and thus end the entire culture of Ozark. So she sets out on a Quest...unaware that she will encounter intruders and traitors who will threaten Ozark's existence.

Twelve Fair Kingdoms, The Grand Jubilee, And Then There'll Be Fireworks: An exciting, witty new trilogy about the magic-makers on a wondrously different planet.

Suzette Haden Elgin is one of my favorite writers for reasons I can't entirely explain. Her worldbuilding is a little daft and the premises on which she builds her stories have me going "Bwu-what?" a lot. But there is a deep wisdom and charm in much of what she writes — and a bit of mostly harmless wingnuttery. I wrote a little bit in this post about her Native Tongue trilogy.

Haden has a PhD in linguistics, and for years she put out the Linguistics and Science Fiction Newsletter. She's also written a series of books based on her Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense.

She was once active here on LJ as ozarque. Unfortunately, her husband has reported that Dr. Elgin is now suffering from advanced, irreversible dementia. So, there will be no more books from her. :(

I rarely reread books. But recently I decided to reread this trilogy that has stuck in my mind (like all of Elgin's works) since I first read them over 20 years ago. Although the books are not quite as vivid upon rereading as they were in my memories (I've also become a more critical reader in recent years, and so the "Bwu-what?" moments were more frequent) I still enjoyed them, and think the trilogy is a lot of fun if awfully goofy (and yet also surprisingly dark in places), and, for those of you who are fans of my fan fiction (if you're not, don't worry, I won't talk about that until the end), yeah, you are going to see that I just may have ripped off more from Suzette Haden Elgin for my Alexandra Quick series than I did from J.K. Rowling.

Planet Ozark

I should have known that something was very wrong when the mules started flying erratically.

Elgin writes about how what became the first line in the first book came about here. The Ozark trilogy began with a creative writing class brainstorming flying mules.

I read elsewhere that Elgin was allegedly also poking gentle fun at Anne McCaffrey's aerodynamically-impossible dragons, and while I don't know if that's true, comparisons with the Pern series are certainly apt. Like the Dragonriders of Pern, the Ozark trilogy is a fantasy pretending to be science fiction, or science fiction pretending to be fantasy, depending on how you want to look at it, and if you can suspend your disbelief for the major worldbuilding elements, the rest seems to make a kind of sense.

I am going to snark these books, but I snark them with love.

So, let's start with the basic premise of the Ozark trilogy: a thousand years ago, twelve families from the Ozarks became so disgusted with the violence, greed, and pollution of Earth that they all boarded a ship and set off for a planet where they would never be found and they could live their lives in peace.

How did a bunch of Ozarkers get their hands on a starship? And how plentiful are habitable planets that they could just choose one that no one else knows about? Don't think about these things too hard. Just like the population figures for a richly-habitable world after a thousand years, the coexistence of not one, not two, but three other sapient races on the planet, and, oh yes, magic, there is a lot in this series that will make anyone reading it for scientific plausibility throw up their hands in despair. The Ozark Trilogy is technically science fiction (especially if you assume that the "magic" is actually advanced psi-powers, which is likely since in a later book Elgin ties Ozark to her Communipath Worlds setting), but for all practical purposes, anything "science fiction" works in a manner indistinguishable from fantasy, and the books read much more like a fantasy series than a SF one.

A thousand years later, everyone on Ozark is still descended from one of the twelve original families. Yes, everyone on the planet has one of twelve surnames. They live on six continents (Arkansaw, Kintucky, Tinaseeh, Oklahomah, Mizzurah, and Marktwain), some of which are, after a thousand years, still mostly untamed wilderness. Partly this is because of deliberate efforts at population control, partly because two of the other resident species, the Gentles and the Skerrys, are as pathologically isolationist as the Ozarkers and so their territories were promised to be left in peace, and partly it's because Suzette Haden Elgin is, in the words of another reviewer, one of those authors for whom numbers aren't actually real things. (She kind of admits this here.)

I also wonder why "Tinaseeh" and "Kintucky" (which are Appalachian states) were included. As a native Ozarker herself, Elgin certainly knows that Appalachia and the Ozarks are two very different regions. But anyway...

Twelve Fair Kingdoms

Twelve Fair Kingdoms

The answer to a Challenge
is a Quest,
and if you want to stop Mischief
then Magic is best!

In the first book of the trilogy, Twelve Fair Kingdoms, we learn the basic history of Planet Ozark (at least the Ozarkers' version of it) and how it came to be settled, and we meet Responsible of Brightwater, a fourteen-year-old girl who is the most powerful person on the planet.

She is the first-person narrator of the first book (whereas the next two are written in third person since Elgin needs to step outside of Responsible's head for large portions of them). Responsible is burdened with enormous responsibilities and knowledge that cannot be shared with anyone else, but while a little headstrong and only human (thus making mistakes, some fairly big ones), she dutifully lives up to her name. She is responsible for holding together what passes for a government on Ozark: the Confederation of Continents. Several of the twelve families are dead-set against the existence of even a fig-leaf of a central authority and would much rather be "Boones," living completely independent, self-sufficient lives despite the fact that Brightwater Kingdom supplies everything from food to medicine to the global communications network to the other continents. So, as a meeting of all the continental delegates at the 500th anniversary Jubilee approaches (I guess this would make it the second Jubilee in the planet's history?), things start to go awry at Brightwater Castle. A magical mischief-maker steals a baby and leaves it in a tree, curdles milk, and causes a mule crash, among other things. Responsible deduces that these incidents are a "shot across the bow" from someone who wants to sabotage the Jubilee and is trying to demonstrate their magical superiority to Brightwater Kingdom. Her solution: a Solemn Quest, in which she will dress in solemn questing gear and fly a mule around the planet, visiting each of the other eleven families in turn, "showing the flag" and demonstrating that youall can't mess with Brightwater.

Ozark, as I've mentioned, has magic. There are various levels of magic. There is "Common Sense magic" which anyone can do with a little study and effort. There is Highfalutin' Magic, which only Magicians can do. There is Granny Magic, which only the Grannies can perform. (More about them anon.) And then there are Formalisms and Transformations, the most powerful form of magic, capable of doing anything from turning people into animals to teleporting around the planet. Only Magicians of Rank, the most powerful people in the world, can do this kind of magic.

Oh yes, and Responsible.

Over the course of the book, Responsible pretty much ignores all the rules that apply to everyone else. She is the most potent magician in the world, and even though it's considered not just impossible but immoral for a female to perform high-level magic, she can and does. She has to do so in secret, to avoid frightening and offending people, but one of the big mysteries, not really answered until book three, is just how she's able to do this and why a fourteen-year-old girl is the de facto leader of the planet (despite the fact that she's regarded with attitudes ranging from patronizing affection to fear and loathing from everyone else).

A hint comes from her name. The Naming of girlbabies is very important on Ozark. Only the Grannies can name girls, and an Improper Naming can have disastrous effects. (In an appendix, Elgin even provides the numerology scheme by which names are assigned a number of magical significance.) There is always, and only ever, one girl named Responsible on the Planet Ozark.

The Grannies, chosen from a select group of old women who must be either virgins or widows and demonstrated (through tests and trials) to be exceptionally wise, potent, and irredeemably crotchety, act as hecklers, healers, and an untouchable class capable of speaking truth to power with the job of keeping everyone humble. They're kind of a hoot, and also kind of really annoying, which they are meant to be.

The politics of Ozark and the end of Responsible's quest make up the plot, but this first book is really all about worldbuilding. As Responsible tours the planet, we learn about this strange world, the people and creatures who inhabit it, and the preternaturally potent protagonist.

The Grand Jubilee

The Grand Jubilee

When Ozark is endangered
by Darkness and Night,
Then a girl named Responsible
must make Magic bright!

Book two begins right where book one ended. The Grand Jubilee takes place in Part One. It does not go well.

There were a lot of questions raised in book one. Why is Responsible so exceptional and why is she responsible for the whole planet? Why is it so important for the Confederation of Continents to remain intact when it's got no real authority? Why do sentient telepathic flying mules let humans ride them?

A few answers are revealed in this book, but the worldbuilding never becomes exactly tight or logical. Responsible knows some very important secrets that, for reasons never precisely explained, she cannot share with anyone else even though they involve the very fate of the planet.

Before things go all to hell, Responsible meets Lewis Wommack the 33rd, who is prophecied to be her ultimate nemesis in a very vague prophecy that basically says "You're screwed no matter what."

Well, "nemesis" can be read in various ways. What actually happens is that Responsible, who most of the time could be a Granny herself, she is so unnaturally mature beyond her years, discovers that her Achilles heel is a sudden case of raging adolescent hormones, and Lewis Wommack is the poisoned arrow that strikes her there.

Yeah, they totally Do It. Not a very responsible thing to do in a society with an unreconstructed view of female sexuality (it's evil), and where "Detect Virgin" is apparently an inherent ability of all Grannies, so as soon as Responsible no longer is one, all the Grannies know it and start calling her, in so many words, a whore.

Not to mention, Responsible has already observed that being a virgin makes you immune to certain types of hostile magic. And all the Magicians of Rank hate her (mostly because she's a girl and she shouldn't be so damn powerful). So her roll in the hay proves to be very costly. But hey, she's fifteen. It's about time she did something stupid.

The Grand Jubilee also introduces us to Responsible's older sister Troublesome. Troublesome kicks some ass. She only plays a minor part in this book, but for the remainder of the trilogy you will be left wondering what's so damn "evil" about her — while the Grannies' Naming is supposedly a deep and magical process, it actually seems to be an arbitrary assignment of whatever social roles they feel need to be assumed by some poor girl, creating self-fulfilling prophecies and in Troublesome's case, an awfully unfair stigma.

So, as the middle book ends, Troublesome is still exiled to her lonely mountaintop, Responsible has just been put into a coma by the Magicians of Rank (who, despite being enormously powerful, are still all frail-egoed men of the pitiful variety), and things are about to go to hell in a handbasket on Ozark.

And Then There'll Be Fireworks

And Then There'll Be Fireworks

The first two books had a serious plot and a few serious points to make, but were mostly rather light fantasy with a bit of theological and social subtext.

The tone in book three starts out much darker. The Planet Ozark has fallen into anarchy, and on Tinaseeh, the Traveller family, who for the first two books have been the "bad guys" inasmuch as anyone deserves that label, being the most conservative, joyless, theocratic, and oppressive of the twelve families and the most eager to dissolve the Confederacy, have gotten their wish. Now they're all alone and unrestrained on their remote continent, and also starving to death, which they regard as merely a test of their faith. In the meantime, they are whipping ten-year-old girls to death for being insufficiently submissive to their husbands. Yes, I said "ten-year-old girls" and "husbands."

Usually it's the middle book in a trilogy that seems to suffer, but I'd have to say that despite the name, And Then There'll Be Fireworks is the weakest of the three books. It's also the shortest, so Elgin tries to wrap up an awful lot, leaving a lot of unanswered questions, so if you were hoping all those strange bits of worldbuilding might be explained in a way that makes sense, you'll be disappointed.

It turns out that when there is no girl named Responsible taking care of things, not only does the planet fall into anarchy, but there's also no magic. The Magicians of Rank are powerless (even to reverse Responsible's coma, which they realized was a big mistake just a little too late), and with the dissolution of the Confederacy and an end to magic, there is no more intercontinental trade or communications. Ozark, we learn, thanks to strict controls that have been in place since the Ozarkers first landed, has been a planet without disease, starvation, or war for a thousand years. That quickly goes out the window as people start starving, dying of plagues, and shooting each other.

For the first part of the book, the main character is Troublesome. Yay, Troublesome! She gives the Grannies lip, then goes on a quest of her own to find a cure for Responsible's magical coma.

Meanwhile, an evil magical interstellar empire has parked giant gemstones in the air above all twelve of Ozark's family castles and is threatening to take over the planet.

Yeah, seriously. The "Garnet Ring" and the "Out-Cabal," referred to since the first book, finally makes an appearance as the threat that Responsible has secretly been protecting the Planet Ozark from.

Will Responsible awaken from her coma and save the day? Do Mules shit in the woods? The ending is somewhat satisfying but abrupt, and not everything is wrapped up neatly. But the most grievous offenders get theirs, or soon will, and once again awesome women undo the mess that stupid men made. Umm, yay?

It's... an ending. And while I would not say this is the most brilliantly executed trilogy ever, it does reach a solid climax with all the current problems more or less resolved. And if Elgin were to write any more books in the Ozark series, I would certainly read them. (There is, in fact, one more book: Yonder Comes the Other End of Time, which is next on my TBR list.) But as I noted above, her health situation is such that this will most certainly never happen, so this is all we've got.

From Margaret Mitchell to Suzette Haden Elgin: gender politics that stick in your craw but make you think

In the last LJ post Elgin wrote, she mentions her love of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.

I am not surprised (partly because I really like Gone with the Wind as a novel too, despite its hideous racism), because the gender politics in Elgin's work are a feminist reinterpretation, of sorts, of those in Mitchell's Confederacy.

What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do: to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves. It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land in which men were contented, uncontradicted, and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration. In fact, men willingly gave the ladies everything in the world, except credit for having intelligence.

Herein is where the elements of Elgin's abstruse feminism are presented in that annoying way that has set many a reader's teeth on edge. There were similar but even more oppressive gender politics in Elgin's other series, the Native Tongue trilogy, in which at one point a girl asks an older woman why life is so unfair and why they have so much less freedom than the women of the 20th century, and the answer is basically that what they have now is better than back when there was all that rape and pornography and slasher flicks.

Well, that's the argument made by a lot of oppressive conservative cultures that advocate regulating the womenfolk, and it's kind of at the core of Ozark society too, but inverted, so Ozark is patriarchal on the surface but women (from the Grannies on down) are basically all in on a big conspiracy to keep secret from the menfolk the fact that they're mostly stupid and useless. Women have to keep everything running while letting the men think they're in charge because their fragile egos could never bear the terrible truth.

It didn't matter how many girls there were to a Granny School; a Granny took as many as happened to be there. And since, on all of Tinaseeh, the only Granny was Granny Leeward, it was a large group of little girls she faced that same day. But she had no more concern about what they must be taught than the Tutors did for the boys, and she needed no book to keep it straight in her head.

"Men," she was saying, "are of but two kinds: splendid, and pitiful. The splendid ones are rare, and if you chance on one you'll know it. What I tell you now has to do with the rest of 'em — as my Granny told me, and her Granny told her before that, and so back as far as time will take you..."

As in Native Tongue, Elgin's version of feminism seems to be: "Men suck, so women have to endure them by virtue of their inherent superiority." Women who suck are the ones who do a bad job of coping with men. (No, I don't think Elgin would agree that that's what she's actually saying. This is my critical interpretation of her work, disregarding authorial intent.) Now, I'm not complaining about "reverse sexism" here, I'm saying the message strikes me as just a warped version of the old "Men just can't help it a-hyuck a-hyuck" justification for lowered expectations. After all, if men are just inherently stupid, insensitive, and beastly, then you can't really expect them to behave any better, can you? As in Native Tongue, I reached the point where I was thinking: "Well, if you're so damn smart and you could bring the system down if you chose to, why don't you?"

I've read quite a bit of Elgin's work, both fiction and non-fiction. She seems to be deeply religious but very liberal, her view of God also being expressed in the Ozark series — they have churches and Solemn Services but only token clergy and while they worship a Holy One, there's a short story in the first book explaining how they lost their only copy of the Bible when they first landed (yes, just suspend your disbelief, they only packed one Bible for a permanent migration to another planet).

"Botheration," First Granny said when they realized it was gone. And the Captain allowed as how he was deeply sorry.

"Well," said First Granny, "I suppose we'll just have to Make Do."

And so we have, ever since.

Elgin's Ozark Center for Language Studies is "dedicated to the two goals of reducing violence in the U.S. and getting information about linguistics out to the public," two goals she sees as inextricably linked. Most of her writing addresses ways to reduce violence in part by how it is expressed in language. So the Ozarkers are, in a sense, quite backwards — notwithstanding magic and high technology, they have not evolved as a society at all in a thousand years. But Elgin presents this as a good thing, because for the price of a culture in permanent stasis with rigid gender roles (and, incidentally, not a single non-white Ozarker, and nary a hint of homosexuality), they get a peaceful, unspoiled planet. It's hard to argue that this isn't a deal a lot of people would take, but let's just say there are a few... gaps there that I find problematic.

So that's where the Ozarkers came from!

Yes, that's where the Ozarkers came from.

Constance and Forbearance Pritchard

I have mentioned Elgin's influence on my Alexandra Quick series before. I "borrowed" a lot of her Ozarker lore and magic for my own Ozarkers. The Grannies. Troublesome. The rather oppressive, traditionalist culture. And even some other elements you haven't seen yet...

Like the Harry Potter books, which I read much later, there was something about the Ozark trilogy that, while by no means the best thing I'd ever read, captured my imagination.

So when I was looking to create some uniquely American magical cultures for my fan fiction series, I started with Ozarkers and borrowed a lot of things I remembered from Elgin's books.

Now, keep in mind I actually hadn't read them in a long time. I've only just reread them for the first time in decades. So while obviously there are some names and things I lifted straight out of Elgin's novels, my Ozarkers aren't purely her Ozarkers, just as Alexandra Quick isn't Harry Potter.

I also suspect that Suzette Haden Elgin, as a career linguist and native Ozarker, would not be pleased by my rendition of the Ozarker dialect. (There isn't a single "hain't" in any of her books.)

That said, if you read the Ozark Trilogy, you will even see a few other things I obviously borrowed that I haven't mentioned in this review. ;)

Poll #1913264 The Ozark Trilogy

Have you read the Ozark Trilogy?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Have you read anything else by Suzette Haden Elgin?

Yes, I'm a fan.
Yes, but I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Verdict: This trilogy would never be published today. It's just too offbeat and requires some great suspensions of disbelief, but it's charming and witty and kind of like a more feminist version of Pern in a very odd sideways way. I have always liked Suzette Haden Elgin's work, even though she is full of woo and her gender roles can make her books wallbangers. (Not as bad as Sherri S. Tepper, though.) It's a series that left mindworms in my head that came out in my fan fiction, and for that alone I'll always thank Elgin for years of entertainment.

Suzette Haden Elgin was at one time a prolific writer, but she never rose above midlist obscurity. She's now in very poor health and will not be writing any more books. I hope more people will discover her books and appreciate what a thoughtful writer she is while she is still alive.

See also the SFWA Ozark Trilogy homepage.

An Ozark Mule

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: alexandra quick, books, fantasy, reviews, science fiction, suzette haden elgin

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