I have a slew of books read for the Cybils whimpering to be reviewed, but my brain is fried. So today I offer two books that blew my mind back when I was 12 or so--Dragonsong (1976) and Dragonsinger (1977) by Anne McCaffrey, for Retro Friday.
I will now try to type the first line of Dragonsinger from memory (it's been a number of years since I've re-read it): "When Menolly, daughter of Yanus Seaholder, arrived at the Harper Crafthall, she came in style, aboard a bronze dragon." (I scored 100%)
Menolly lives on the planet of Pern, a place where dragons flame a deadly organism called Thread (nasty stuff, that devours anything organic it touches) from the sky. The seahold (carved out of solid rock, like most Pernese settlements, so as to be safe from Thread) where Menolly grew up had rigid ideas about gender roles. Menolly, wonderfully talented in every aspect of music, was the protegee of the harper, but when he died, her father regarded her as an embarrassment. After her hand is almost crippled by an injury that puts a stop to her playing, she can't stand life in the repressive sea hold and runs away to live by herself.
Happily for Menolly, she isn't lonely for long. The cove where she chooses to live is home to fire lizards, small cousins of the dragons, and she manages to form a psychic bond with nine of fire lizard hatchlings. They are company, but still she longs for music, and dreams of the Harper Hall, Pern's central institute for music.
Through a somewhat complex series of events, Menolly arrives at the great caverns of the Harper Hall (on board a bronze dragon)....and Dragonsinger begins.
Imagine a boarding school book in which all the lessons are about music--instrumental, vocal, composition....Imagine this boarding school is on another planet, with different customs, technology, and dragons (and marvellous, beautiful, firelizards who can share your heart...), and complicated political situations taking place that Menolly only dimly understands, but which provided much depth to the story. And imagine Menolly herself, whisked from cave life into this setting, confused and disoriented...and facing considerable disapprobation from both the pampered girl students, who are ancillary to the central school, and from masters and boys who resent her for being a girl (and for being better than them!). All the while she has to contend with the challenge of her injured hand--will she be able to regain full use of it, and achieve her full potential as an instrumentalist?
Menolly's journey from scared waif to confident musician is a truly enjoyable experience. McCaffery includes such a wealth of detail in her telling that I can hardly think of any other book that is clearer in my mind (although the fact that I've read it c. 100 times might be a factor). I especially love the detailed music-specific bits--what is it like to play in a string quartet, sight-reading the music, with some the best musicians on your planet? And the scene where she chooses a guitar from the instrument store room is the best guitar choosing scene ever.
I do hope that other 11/12 year olds girls are still finding this book...it is so much fun! And even inspirational, although as a cynical adult Menolly's musical wonderfulness grates just a tad (or maybe a bit more that a tad....).
It's interesting to look a my old paperback copy of this. I've read so much modern middle grade fiction recently that the text of this one looks horribly small and dense--it's 240 pages, but it would probably be about 500-600 as a modern hardcover, with curlicue pictures of firelizards in the margins. The modern version on Amazon, with a very different cover, is 320 pages....(I like the covers from my childhood books, shown here, best!)
Note on age--Menolly's an adolescent girl, just beginning, toward the end of Dragonsinger, to think about boys. They are both perfectly clean reads, but fairly sophisticated, language-wise. McCaffery might be writing about a young girl, but she doesn't write down to her audience at all.