Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. Today, YA author, former Gawker editor and 'Fine Lines' guest-writer Emily Gould rereads 'Alanna: The First Adventure', Tamora Pierce's 1983 novel about about how much tougher puberty is when no one knows you're a girl because you switched places with your twin brother in order to train to be a knight.
The scene where the protagonist gets her period for the first time is to YA novels what climactic car chases are to action movies and makeover montages are to chick flicks: hotly anticipated, reassuringly consistent and familiar, and always entertaining. Alanna: The First Adventure is an exception.
Alanna woke at dawn, ready for another session with Coram's big sword. She got out of bed - and gasped in horror to find her thighs and sheets smeared with blood. She washed herself in a panic and bundled the sheets down the privy. What was going on? She was bleeding, and she had to see a healer; but who? She couldn't trust the palace healers. They were men and the bleeding came from a secret place between her legs.
The reason Alanna can't trust the palace healers is the same reason nobody's ever taught her how to use a tampon: she's a girl posing as a boy in order to train for knighthood in an imaginary fantasy kingdom called Tortall.
The deal in Tortall is usually that noble families send their female children to a convent to train to be ladies and their male children to the royal palace to become knights when they're YA novel protagonist age (11 or so), but Alanna and her convenient twin brother Thom arrange to switch places — not because Thom wants to be a lady, but because the nuns also train people in how to use magic and Thom wants to grow up to be a sorcerer. He and Alanna are both naturally blessed with magical powers — they "have the Gift," as their village wise woman puts it — but Thom is more into wizardry and Alanna is more into whacking things with a sword. So she cuts her hair and traipses off to the palace in order to get better at swordcraft and concealing her gender and Thom gets to learn how to use magic.
Yup: in the Alanna books, magic exists! That makes my love for the Alanna books an aberration in the tastes I exhibited as an 8-12 year old — the years when I sat in White Oak Library every day after school and read I think literally every book in the Young Adult section as well as all of the back issues of Sassy, which were also conveniently shelved there. But I was never really that into books where magic exists. It wasn't the whiff of sci-fi twelve sided die dorkery that put me off — hello, see previous sentence, I was the biggest little dork imaginable — it was a combination of the heavy-handed seriousness, the vowel-less proper nouns and most of all, the dearth of female characters that put me off fantasy as a genre. (Put down your magical swords, dorks — I changed my mind about a lot of this later on).
But the great thing about the Alanna books is that they're not only funny and thankfully bereft of characters named Yllynwyn etc, they're all about women: specifically, they're about what it's like to be a woman in a man's world. Rereading the Alanna books reveals a simple, oft-repeated lesson: Girls, it turns out, can do everything boys do — in fact, they can do it better. (And, like, how much better is this for young girls to hear than the endless litany of designer brand names infesting some current YA, which, okay, I also enjoy reading but I'm glad I read this and not that as a 9 year old?) As the littlest knight, "Alan" gets picked on constantly, so she has to train twice as hard as her classmates and also develop her resourcefulness and wits — instead of kowtowing to the class bully, she sneaks off-campus for lessons in illicit street-fighting and eventually trounces him.
But while Alanna fights like a man, she breaks just like a little girl. Well, just this once, anyway:
'The other boys want to celebrate. They think you're a hero. Isn't that what you wanted?' She splashed cold water on her face. "Is it? I don't know.' She rubbed her face dry and looked at him. 'I threw up after,' she confessed. 'I hate myself. I just knew more than Ralon did. And he always loses his temper when he fights - I took advantage of that. I'm as bad as he was.'"
This is a rare moment of convincing weakness, however. Alan/Alanna is so tough — and always does the ethically right thing, too — that she occasionally risks losing the reader's sympathy — she can be a bit of a Mary Sue in Larry's clothing, basically. Also, what does she do on long horse rides when everyone else is peeing against a tree? These are minor quibbles, though, which should not make us miss the point of the Alanna series which is oh my god, SEX!
It's merely hinted at in the first book, of course — well, the first book ends when Alanna is fourteen, so! But early on, "Alan" strikes up an alliance with the heir to the throne, Prince Jonathan (she gets to call him 'Jon.') Their friendship deepens when she uses her "Gift" to save him from a magically-induced plague, which requires her to call on the power of the Mother Goddess (Tortallians have a rad polytheistic pagan religion going on) and the one witness to her magical cure hears "a man's voice and a woman's voice coming from Jonathan and Alan." This is the closest Alanna has come to being found out! Then, much later, she and Jon are embroiled in a high-stakes magical swordfight with some evil desert demons (long story). The demons magically peek into her mind and find out her secret, and they prankishly divest her of her clothes. "I may be a girl, but I can defend - or attack!—as well as any boy!" screams nude Alanna. Um, but then:
"'She looked at Jonathan. Her friend was openly staring. 'Highness,' she whispered, blushing a deep red, "I—' He pulled off his tunic and handed it to her. 'Later, just - who are you?'"
Hot, right? He is about to get killed by demons and he's still making time to check her out! Later, in the desert:
It's been such an awful day,' she sobbed. Hesitantly the young man put his arms around her and drew her against him. 'And now you're being so kind.' She wept into his shirt. 'Not kind,' he told her. 'Grateful. Admiring. You're getting my shirt wet.'"
This hint of rom-com banter foreshadows things to come in the rest of the series, when Alanna and Jon are a little bit older, he's the only one who knows her secret, and there's lots of unfettered access to each other's "bedchambers." The next two books in the series are basically like Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep in the illicit boarding-school boning department, just with more swordplay. Yesss.
I was mad titillated by these books as a nine year old, and also, I suppose, empowered. Rereading Alanna now is refreshing and a little bit saddening. Back then, I accepted its message — that by working twice as hard as the boys, you can beat them at their own game — very credulously, now that I think about it. But I didn't pay much attention to the book's other implicit lesson, which is: If you show any sign of "femininity" or weakness, you leave yourself open to attack. Alanna can vanquish her demons with magic, but the rest of us are gonna have to figure things out on our own.