The Critics’ Corner
by Don Webb
Give Them Wine begins in issue 427.
Mary B. McArdle’s Give Them Wine, part 1, amply illustrates one of Bewildering Stories’ editorial principles: if you have good characters, for pity’s sake don’t waste ’em!
The three most interesting characters in part 1, “A Disparity of Language,” are either entirely absent or play bit parts, and the main character herself seems to play a kind of supporting role.
1. Katera is a character bursting with dramatic possibilities. She casts a long shadow over the entire story. And yet she is never seen or heard.
Katera governs the commune in which Donas, the main character, is born and raised, and Katera seems to have organized her society not by families but by occupations. Donas somehow comes to suspect that Katera heads a kind of pharmocracy in which the people are gradually made subservient with drugged apples, and the process is completed with a dose of spiked wine in a coming of age ceremony.
As a consequence, Donas senses a “wrongness” in her society. And yet in later chapters, Donas shows herself to be prone to misapprehensions. How reliable is she? Is her assessment of the situation accurate? The reader has mainly Donas’ word for it.
Who is Katera? What are her motives, and what might account for them? What is she like? A raving Hitler? A coolly brutal Stalin? A delusional Mao? She could easily pursue Donas, Mak and Rani. Why doesn’t she? If she’s not vengeful, might Donas have misjudged her?
2. Ter is Katera’s brother and Donas’ uncle. He is apparently one of few who are exempt from Katera’s drug regime. He appears briefly and serves mainly to help Donas escape.
But why is Ter in the story at all? Is it his function to validate Donas’ decision? Why does he not go with her and the other children? They need him, and he seems to stand to gain as much as they. Does he stay behind because following Donas is more trouble than it’s worth? Is that what his reasons amount to?
In the end, Ter seems to help Donas and her siblings overcome not a real obstacle but one created to justify his appearance. Readers might well like to know more about Ter’s conflicts. And since he appears to be generous and resourceful, his story is interesting in its own right.
3. Nakoma might be a projection of Katera herself — were Nakoma not acting out of weakness. Her scheme to get Donas to leave town would become transparent if Donas simply stopped to think, “Why is she doing this? What does she get out of it?”
And Donas could have anticipated the readers’ questions: “How did Nakoma know I was going to the Storytellers’ Hall? What was she doing there? She did say it was a capital offense to be caught in the building.”
Nakoma’s malevolence is also hard to understand. Is she trying to blackmail her parents and natural mother? If so, why? How could her parentage be kept secret anyway in such a small society?
In the end, Nakoma, like Ter, plays an auxiliary role. She provides a classic example of the reason that genealogical records are of vital importance in a rural, agrarian society. And she precipitates a crisis that finally forces Lionel to talk frankly with Donas. But Nakoma is written out of the script abruptly and with a dash of cruelty. She seems to be made a scapegoat and a potential rebel with a cause.
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The title “Give Them Wine” is quite effective. It prompts prospective readers to ask, “Give wine to whom? What kind? And why?” The wine itself is a mystery; it’s never fully revealed. All the characters seem to know about Katera’s wine and take it for granted. But as long as the readers know about it only by hearsay, the wine remains the equivalent of a magic potion in a fairy tale. We don’t need to know exactly what it is, but we do need to see it in action.
The subtitle “A Disparity of Language” is unfortunate. Prospective readers of fiction will hardly be intrigued by such a dry academic title. It suggests that misunderstanding based on linguistic differences will provide the basis for the dramatic tension in the story. It’s simply not true: the dramatic tension, such as it is, is provided by uncommunicative Lionel, by absent Katera and, for a brief while, by scheming Nakoma.
In reality, language is only a minor distraction. In Katera’s community, the people have unaccountably forgotten the names of the seasons. And Donas does not know the words for “sky,” “clouds,” or “moon.” She knows general terms like “cattle” and “covering” but not particular ones, such as “cow” or “shoe.”
Judging by Donas’ bizarre ignorance of certain high-frequency words, one might well conclude that Katera’s people are troglodytes — they live mostly underground and go barefoot. If Donas’ vocabulary is so limited, she and the South People should find it very hard to communicate at all.
But language is not the problem it’s cracked up to be. Donas lacks words for some commonplace items, but otherwise she has quite an erudite vocabulary. Her protestation to Lionel, in chapter 26, that she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “honor” is very hard to believe.
Unlike Lionel, who says he’s too busy to learn to read and that the Storytellers’ book-learning bores him, Donas does know how to read; she recognizes the title of “The Rose” in the Storytellers’ Hall. Lionel offers an incredibly feeble excuse for failing to tell Donas about the Storytellers. If he’s as much in love with Donas as he says, why does he dismiss her curiosity so casually? Even if he doesn’t share it, he must understand or at least accept it, lest he make her a very sorry husband indeed.
Admittedly, Donas, too, can be slow on the uptake. Lionel has to point out to her that Katera’s wine is red while the South People’s is amber. Donas does not need to know any words to distinguish between the two colors. Readers will notice the difference and wonder why Donas doesn’t.
Donas talks to herself a lot. When she does, she’s usually wise far beyond her years; but when she talks to others, the contrast is very striking. Readers will never wonder what Donas is thinking; rather, they’ll wonder why Donas asks so few questions. The “disparity of language,” then, consists not in words but in the characters’ failure to use the words they know.
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Give Them Wine appears to be written for a very narrow audience: girls of age 12 to 15. But even they will be intrigued by Katera, Ter and Nakoma. Readers may well be disappointed that these characters by turns ignore, abandon, and try to get rid of Donas and that as a consequence we see very little of them.
Donas herself is resourceful. She’s also very caring: her first priority is to protect Mak and Rani. She’s a little headstrong, but that’s understandable: she feels threatened, and she’s too young yet to be able to think things through.
Even so, readers young and old alike may feel that Donas, too, is a wasted character and that she runs afoul of a trap inherent in young adult literature: the passive protagonist. With all her qualities, Donas remains a pinball in a larger game, bounced to and fro by characters such as Lionel and Nakoma’s mother, who have their own agendas, as well as by Katera, Ter and Nakoma, who have untold larger stories of their own.
Readers can readily imagine new and exciting turns the story might take. But the one time Donas does take action after arriving among the South People — when she invades the Storytellers’ Hall — Nakoma’s intervention makes Donas appear embarrassingly gullible. Otherwise, Donas’ career among the South People seems to be that of an unremarkable teenager: picking cotton, modeling new dresses, and getting betrothed to Lionel.
Give Them Wine is purportedly set in a mysterious post-apocalypse era in the Deep South in the 22nd century. In reality, the story is an adolescent romance based on the pastoral myth that entertained 20th-century urban and suburban America, namely the idealized mid-19th century of “western” novels and films as well as of regional period romances such as that of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, two unwasted characters in Gone With the Wind.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb