It wasn’t until I was doing research for today’s post that I realized how many of Cynthia Voigt’s books I have read. Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, The Callendar Papers, and the focus of this post, Elske. I originally picked up Elske about seven years ago because the cover illustration is Vermeer’s Head of a Girl. I re-read it for the blog because I remembered liking it, but was honestly surprised by how much I still enjoyed it this time around! However, it is a particularly adult novel for the YA genre. There are multiple references to graphic violence and rape, and it is probably not actually meant for a younger audience.
Elske takes place in the fictional Kingdom, which seems to be in the vicinity of the 14th century. The titular character has been raised among the Volkaric, a barbaric people to the North infamous for their brutality. She escapes her fate as a Death Maiden – destined to be sacrificed on the funeral pyre of the Volkking – and finds her way to a position as the maidservant of a deposed Queen, Beriel. Together, the young women set out to reclaim Beriel’s throne and save her country from invasion by the Volkaric hordes.
For all her barbaric upbringing, Elske is a true renaissance woman – as she describes herself: “I speak both Norther and Souther. I read and write in both tongues. I can figure with numbers. I know how to care for babies, and children, and something about cooking. I can snare small animals and skin prey of any size, dig over soil, plant it and harvest a crop. I can serve at table. I can launder clothing. I can mend with a needle and thread.” She is also so no-nonsense and clear-thinking that she makes stereotypical YA heroines look like melodramatic whiners. She faces each problem matter-of-factly and cuts easily to the heart of it.
There is also Elske’s mistress, Beriel, Crown Princess of the Kingdom. Her own family has taken brutal measures to ensure she never claims the crown, including repeated rape to impregnate her with an illegitimate child. But Beriel’s single-minded determination to gain her rightful throne holds her through the horror, despair, and long odds. Together, the pair of young women manage to reclaim an entire country from a usurping tyrant.
But this is not to say that either woman occupies the WW role that it would be so easy to cast them in. Beriel runs ripshod over anyone in her way (including Elske a time or two) and Elske is so matter-of-fact that she verges occasionally on utilitarian. In particular Elske’s ruminations on how to make sure Beriel’s illegitimate child is never discovered are both practical and chilling – though she wants to keep the newborn alive, she has considered the best way to quietly kill it if it shows signs of crying while she hides it.
At the end of the story, both Elske and Beriel find husbands, but instead of this seeming to be a typical YA ending reinstating either patriarchal rule or the chick-lit trope, in particular Elske’s man of choice is her equal and helpmeet. For example, while she plans to free a friend from Beriel’s guard, her paramour doesn’t caution her against it, or do it for her. Instead he slips her a blade “so we are both armed.” Without needing to overtly state it, Voigt crafts a mutually respectful relationship of equals.
However, the most perfect partnership is between Elske and Beriel, two independent young women making their way in a world ruled by men. Take for example this quote after their first meeting:
“She held her right hand out to Elske, as if they were two merchants closing on a sale, and she bowed her head to Elske, as if they were two swordsmen ending a match, and she looked Elske in the eye, as if they were Wolfer captains, about to risk their lives in battle.”
You see this co-opting of male position and language? They are bound by respect and honor, a female relationship crafted along traditionally masculine lines, and as the epilogue will tell you, they and their lines bring about a golden age in the Kingdom.