Monday, March 22, 2010

Dragonsong

The Harper Hall trilogy, which I discovered when I was in the sixth grade, was among the books that not only cemented my love of reading, but gave me a passion for the fantastical and otherworldly in literature, a passion that I still feel very much today. I read and reread my library's copies of these books, until one day I took my savings to the book store and bought my very own copies, which I still have so many years later. What joy to read this book to my children and have them adore it just as much as I did (and still do)!

Despite the miniature dragons fluttering about the cover of the book, this book is science fiction, not fantasy. It is set on a planet called Pern, and other books in the series detail the settling of the planet and the history of the enormous firebreathing dragons that are instrumental in protecting the planet and its inhabitants from dangerous spores called thread. Thread falls from the sky whenever the orbit of the rogue planet known as the Red Star causes it to pass too close to Pern.

Menolly, our heroine, lives in a remote fishing village. Her father is the leader of the village, and he is a hard, practical, unimaginative man. He disapproves of Menolly's love of music - she should be working with the other women in the hold, gutting fish and taking care of tasks that will feed people, not mess about twiddling on her useless instruments. Petiron, the sea hold's harper, is the only one who truly understands her, but as the book opens we find out that Petiron has died. Menolly has lost her only ally, and while she is allowed to teach the children their songs and ballads (education is an oral tradition on Pern, with harpers teaching important lessons through music) until the new harper arrives, she is expected to give music up once and for all after he comes. Not only that, but her father worries that if the new harper finds out that the children's education was taken on by a mere girl, it will disgrace the sea hold - so Menolly is kept far away from him, busy with cooking and cleaning and taking care of querulous oldsters.

Finally matters come to a head, and Menolly can take it no more. She leaves the hold in the early morning and finds herself a place of her own, where she can make music and live without the constant criticism and scolding. Before she realizes what's happened she finds herself surrounded by near-mythical beasts called fire lizards, miniature versions of the enormous, intelligent beasts that protect Pern during threadfall. Menolly is skilled at surviving on her own, but one day a disastrous miscalculation brings unimaginable consequences.

Part coming-of-age tale, part survival story, full of that magical sense of wonder that remains with a reader long after the book has ended, Dragonsinger gives us a strong heroine with plenty of flaws and uncertainties who takes action to secure her own happiness. Menolly is a dreamer, but she's also disciplined, intelligent and hard-working, and it is heart-wrenching to see how little valued she is by her own family because they see no worth in her innate skills and talents.

I had such a fantastic time reading this to my children. They are nine and eleven years old now, and I have to say that had I not read all the Pern novels, it might have been a bit too difficult for them. But as I was able to explain threadfall, dragons, and the unfamiliar terminology such as weyrs, holds, and Impression, it was smooth sailing. McCaffrey doesn't pull any punches as far as vocabulary goes, which was great - they learned a lot of excellent words along the way, and we had a fabulous time talking about life on other planets, and how the environment can shape the way people live in unexpected ways. Best of all, though was being able to share a story that touched me so deeply when I was close to their age, and see it touch them just as much.

Books in the Harper Hall trilogy:
1. Dragonsong
2. Dragonsinger
3. Dragondrums

Dragonsong (#1 in the Harper Hall trilogy) by Anne McCaffrey (Atheneum, 1976)

Also reviewed at:
The Bookshelves of Doom: "If you know kids who love the Protector of the Small series, they'll almost definitely dig this."
Fifty Book Challenge: "It was yet another efficiently and effectively spun tale. There was an element of frustration caused by Menolly's situation that made me race ahead to find out what happened at the climax, but the ending was satisfying enough to compensate."
Sine Nomine: "The Harper Hall trilogy was one of those book series that made up my childhood, and it's one of those stories that never gets old."

9 comments:

  1. I have a very old copy of this that I picked up on a whim at a used bookstore when I was... thirteen, maybe? I still love this book, and Dragonsinger, too. There is something so wonderful about Menolly.

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  2. Kiirstin - I agree - Menolly is just such a wonderful heroine. We are reading Dragonsinger right now, and it's fun to see her gradually becoming aware of her own worth after being pushed down for so many years. Plus those firelizards are so beautifully portrayed. Last night I read the scene where Robinton and Sebell's eggs hatch, and the girls were entranced. :-)

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  3. I don't know how I missed reading McCaffrey when I was a kid. Do you think the books are complex to appeal to a grown-up reading them for the first time?

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  4. Jenny - Absolutely! What I would do, if I were you, is start with the first book (for adults), Dragonflight, and then read this one. Then read the next book for adults, Dragonquest, and then Dragonsinger. That way you get to things chronologically, and you'll understand the many references in the Harper Hall trilogy that are probably puzzling to readers who only read those three books. Hope that makes sense! Annne McCaffrey is fabulous - I hope you'll have time to give these books a try.

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  5. awesome convos with your kids! I remember reading this novel in gr.8. Funny, I don't quite remember what happens except for what you've written in your review. Must re-read!

    --Sharry

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  6. Sharry - I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this one, too. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts when you get around to rereading it. It certainly held up to my fond memories!

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  7. right now I'm slogging through the new Elizabeth Kostova book "The Swan Thieves" its not nearly as good as her other book, The Historian.

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  8. The Pern books (all of them) are my favorite books of all time! Though I like them all.. Dragonflight, Dragon Quest, The White Dragon and the Harper Hall trilogy are my favorites!.. I have read them numberous times..I am in love with Masterharper Robinton and was privleged to meet Anne McCaffrey once at a convention and asked her if she based Robinton on anyone and she said : her neighbor!.. I"ve wanted to go to Ireland ever since! lol

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  9. VA Gal - I still have The Historian sitting on my book shelf - one of the downsides to actually owning a book is that checked-out library books tend to take precedence. I really need to get to it at some point. Sorry your current read isn't as good!

    Deslily - I had no idea! Robinton is a total hottie. Can I go to Ireland with you? :-) I can't tell you how much fun it's been to revisit Pern with my kids. Have you read the ones her son has written? I thought I might do a reread and continue on with those at some point.

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