Stories within Stories
(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review though Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)
It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering. She didn’t run away. We had–I had–been watching her for some time, listening to her tell stories in the grass behind the house. She would sit near the chicken coop and watch the white chickens pick at the dirt, pulling up fat worms and clipping grasshoppers out of the air as they jumped toward the fields.
Some of them were good stories. Some of them were bad. But that’s what decided it, even more than any issue of mercy or salvation or anything else. Crows are, for one, possessive of stories. And also by then I had pecked almost all the elders into coming to listen to her at least once, except Facunde, who was then mad and responded to nobody’s pecking, not that I had had the courage to exactly take my beak to her. “She is like a daughter to me,” I had pled with the others. “She listens.” They laughed at me, they rattled their beaks, they came and heard her and were convinced, or at least bullied into pretending they were convinced.
We took her on the same cold winter day that you traded your son to the fairies, the wind blowing in cold gray threads, ruffling our feathers. It had snowed a few days before that, a storm that had killed your husband, or so it was said. The wind had snatched the snow out onto the prairie, hiding it in crevices. It had been a dry year, and even though it was still too cold to melt the snow, the thirsty dirt still found places to tuck it away in case of a thaw.
I stamped my feet on a sleeping branch while the others argued. Some argued that we should wait for spring. So many things are different, in the spring. But old Loyolo insisted: no, if we were to take the child, we would have to take her then and there: there had been at least one death already, and no one had heard the babe’s cry for hours.
We covered the oak trees, thousands of us, so many that the branches creaked and swayed under our weight. I don’t know if you noticed us, before it was too late. You were, it is to be admitted, busy.
The girl played on the swings, rocking herself back and forth in long, mournful creaks. She wore a too-small padded jacket and a dress decorated in small flowers. She was so clean that she still smelled of soap. Her feet were bare under their shoes, the skin scabbed and dry, almost scaly. Her wrists were pricked with gooseflesh, and her hair whipped in thin, colorless threads across her face as the wind caught it. The house had the smell of fresh death, under the peeling paint and the dusty windows, and seemed to murmur with forgotten languages, none of which were languages of love or tenderness. Afternoon was sinking into evening. The girl’s breath smelled like hunger.
“Now!” called old Loyolo, at some signal that not even I could have told you. And thousands of birds swept out of the trees toward her. From the middle of it, I can tell you, it seemed a kind of nightmare. Wings in my face, claws in my feathers. The sun was temporarily snuffed out, it was a myriad of bright slices reflected off black wings…
DeAnna Knippling’s A Murder of Crows is, at its heart, a love letter to the art of storytelling. A collection of short stories which forms the backbone of a larger narrative, the sixteen tales here – macabre, horrific, sometimes surreal – are shared with a grieving young girl by the murder (flock) of crows who rescued her from her wicked, murderous mother. (Crows being both connoisseurs and collectors of the oral tradition, natch.) Their story, told between the lines and in the margins of the other sixteen tales, is the seventeenth piece in this delightfully dark anthology.
The collection starts off on an impossibly strong note with “Be Good.” (I say “impossibly” because none of the other stories, as lovely as some of them undoubtedly are, quite lived up to the high expectations I had after reading – no, devouring – “Be Good.”) When a tornado approaches “the Home” near Laurie Lee’s house, threatening to annihilate it – and the many “delinquent” kids imprisoned inside – the young girl wonders why her evil, kitten-killing cousin Tim couldn’t be trapped there. Instead, her friend Martin – sent there by his parents for being gay – is one of the children who will pay the ultimate price for the adults’ warped ideas about “good” and “bad,” “wrong” and “right.”
I also quite enjoyed “Treif,” a post-apocalyptic tale in which humans and zombies coexist under a fragile, tenuous truce. Having tamed some humans so thoroughly that they’ve evolved into a different creature entirely – vaguely bovine animals called behemah – the zombies mostly leave the residents of Goodland alone. But when there’s an unexpected zombie outbreak within its borders, all eyes turn to the traveling storyteller Nitzaniya – and the illicit trief (smoked behemah meat) she smuggled into the town. Like the individual, numbered stories themselves, “Treif” turns out to be a story-within-a-story – just one example of the many intricate layers to be discovered, peeled back, and savored in A Murder of Crows.
“Inappropriate Gifts” is one of many tales that deals with rape and rape culture. In a misguided (but heartfelt) attempt to protect her granddaughter – and then great-granddaughter – from the unwanted advances of men, a dying woman gives her a magical apron which delays the onset of puberty and just generally makes sex repellent to the recipient. Of course, this does nothing to prevent sexual harassment or assault – because it’s never the victim’s fault.
Perhaps in recognition that women belonging to other marginalized groups (racial and ethnic minorities; those with physical or mental disabilities; lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender women) are more likely to face abuse, “The Strongest Thing About Me is Hate” features a Native American (“half-breed,” her schoolmates taunted) protagonist named Lisa. Tired of the constant sexual harassment endured on the ride to and home from school (rape is also hinted at), she finally decides to confront her tormenter – just as the bus is attacked by a group of monsters. Lisa is the sole survivor, though she and her family will never be the same.
Knippling also addresses male-on-male rape with “The Edge of the World,” in which a gay man named Roberto – kidnapped and abused by the faeries as a kid, but now all grown up – refuses to steal another changeling-to-be to take his place.
The animal lover in me got a kick out of “Lord of Pigs,” a sort of farmed animal revenge tale. Upon discovering that Uncle Chuck’s herd of pigs killed him (or did they?), little Deanna attempts to ferry the group to safety before the adults discover their crime and sentence them all to death. However, one brave sow refuses to run, readily trading her life for the freedom of her family. Pigs rock, okay.
While these are among my favorites, the remainder of the stories are enjoyable enough; most I rated 3 stars or above, with a few 2-star stories sprinkled throughout. Weirdly enough, I feel like the whole is overall greater than the sum of its parts. Each story is told not just to comfort a grieving girl – although the storytelling certainly begins on this note – but to impart a specific lesson or moral, suggest a course of action, or even offer a glimpse into the mind of the storyteller. As a result the audience comes to appreciate the intricacies of the titular murder of crows, including each member’s personality and life experiences. The crows truly steal the show.
Of those stories I didn’t care for, I can’t say it’s necessarily due to any shortcomings in Knippling’s writing; rather, these veered towards the more surreal and cryptic, and I wasn’t always able to decipher the meaning embedded within.
When taken as a whole, A Murder of Crows isn’t diverse enough that I’d categorize it as a diverse book (as in “we need diverse books”); but a number of stories are noteworthy for featuring gay protagonists (“The Edge of the World”; “Be Good”); Native American characters (“The Strongest Thing About Me is Hate”; “The Vengeance Quilt”); and those with physical disabilities (for example, the grandmother in “Inappropriate Gifts” suffers from Bell’s Palsy and is self-conscious about how it affects her speech). And of course “Be Good” is just a shiny, lovely (but heartbreakingly so), gay-friendly gem.
One thing I especially enjoy about Knippling is her ability to turn a phrase with artistic ease; the more lyrical lines shine even brighter when juxtaposed with Knippling’s copious use of obscenities, particularly from the mouths of babes. The result is as beautiful as it is profane, a style which suits the stories damn near perfectly.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: When taken as a whole, A Murder of Crows isn’t diverse enough that I’d categorize it as a diverse book (as in “we need diverse books”); but a number of stories are noteworthy for featuring gay protagonists (“The Edge of the World”; “Be Good”); Native American characters (“The Strongest Thing About Me is Hate”; “The Vengeance Quilt”); and those with physical disabilities (for example, the grandmother in “Inappropriate Gifts” suffers from Bell’s Palsy and is self-conscious about how it affects her speech). And of course “Be Good” is just a shiny, lovely (but heartbreakingly so), gay-friendly gem.
Animal-friendly elements: “Lord of Pigs” reads like a farmed animal revenge story. See my review for more.