________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 20. . . .January 28th, 2010.


Plain Kate.

Erin Bow.
New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2010.
314 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-0-545-16664-5.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Mary Thomas.

** / 4




Over by the meat pie, Taggle gave a hiss and a hair-ball cough. Plain Kate opened her eyes. "Musssssicians," the cat spat. "Do you know what fiddle strings are made of? Bah! I'm glad he's gone. Let's eat."

Plain Kate scooched back and stared. "Taggle!"

Taggle was absorbed in the meat pie. "It's covered in bread," he huffed. "What fool has covered meat with bread?" He batted at the crust, then sprang back as it broke, and began licking gravy off his paw. "Ooooooo," he purred "Ooooo, good."

"Taggle," gulped Kate, again.

The cat looked up from his licking. "Oh. Well. I could share." He arched his whiskers forward, and like a lord, demonstrated his beneficence by giving away what he didn't want. "There is bread you might like."

"You're ..." Kate closed her jaw with deliberation. "You can talk."

"It was ... hrrmmmm ... your wish." His yellow eyes seemed to look inside himself. "So that you would not have to go alone."

"Oh." I will grant the secret wish of your heart, Linay had said.

Plain Kate starts off really well. Kate may be plain of face, but, in her father's eyes, she is Katrina, 'my star', and she is the light of his life, his wife having died in the bearing of Kate. She is also the inheritor of his skill as a woodcarver and, from a very young age, has been able to see the shape imprisoned in a piece of wood and to free it with her knife. However, the townspeople are uneasy with her talent, believing her to be a witch. Consequently, when Kate's father dies suddenly of a strange fever, they are not happy having her stay with them. Inertia keeps her in the town anyway for a time, eking out a precarious living by selling her carvings as she can, until the arrival of a peculiar travelling man, a gypsy named Linay. From that point, the story gets darker and ever darker. Kate and Linay strike a bargain that gets her the things she needs to leave town, but, in exchange, he takes her shadow. She attempts to make friends with a band of roamers (relatives of Linay's though she doesn't realize it initially), but disaster falls on anyone who attempts to help or befriend her. In the end, she has no choice but to join up with Linay, travelling with him, aiding him in his weird spells, until she finally decides that she must stop his bizarre attempt at revenge on the town that murdered his wife. She manages this with the help of her talking cat -- his ability to talk was the only positive thing to come of her pact with Linay -- but not in any light-hearted manner.

     Poor Kate. Poor stupid Kate. Why did she stay in the town where she was not welcome? With her talents, she could have gone anywhere and someone would have taken her on as an apprentice, money or no, or hired her to decorate the local mansion, but no. She had to hang about, getting further and further enmeshed with Linay and his scheming until there was no escape.

     The only glimmer of fun or humour in the book comes from Kate's cat. An unexpected consequence of her pact with Linay is that Taggle suddenly is granted the power of speech, and he uses it to good effect. His priorities being firmly set: food, food, and food, followed by warmth, safety, and Kate, his observations have a practical cast to them that Kate's more philosophical ramblings lack. It is only when she takes Taggle's advice that she seems to move out of the shadows into the chance of a brighter future. It is perhaps inevitable that he is the channel by which Kate finds salvation, and it is he who allows the book to end on a reasonably positive note, but he is not enough to redeem the general atmosphere of gloom.

Recommended with reservations.

Mary Thomas works in an elementary school library in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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