I have been planning to write an extended review of Kristin Cashore’s book, Bitterblue, for quite some time. I wrote a basic review for my library’s website (review of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore). But I think this book cries out for a closer analysis. It is complex, and much as I wanted to explore its themes, I was also daunted by the prospect. But as the American Library Association begins to gear up for the annual Banned Books Week, September 30 to October 6, it seems the perfect time to talk about a book whose primary theme is the power of stories and dangers of suppressing them.
I absolutely loved Graceling and Fire. In fact, Katsa is one of my all-time favorite heroines. So I was surprised when I had trouble getting into Bitterblue. Part of the problem for me was that it felt quite different than its companion novels. But I persevered and gradually became more and more engaged with the story. By the end, I decided I needed to go back and read all three books together to fully appreciate both the scope and the depth of the story. What I discovered was that Bitterblue delves into and expands on a theme that appears in both of those books, but that I had largely overlooked – the importance of stories as the way we structure and understand our life and experiences.
Looking back, the things that bothered me about Bitterblue were aspects of the character herself. She takes eight years to begin to realize she is out of touch with her kingdom and its people. But then she suddenly figures it all out and goes from being a timid girl who doesn’t even know the location of the library in her own palace to a daring sleuth who explores the city in disguise. The changes didn’t ring true for me. But I came to realize that while the book may be called Bitterblue, the story is about something much larger than one person, or even the city that bears her name. It is ultimately a story about the importance of stories.
As I re-read Graceling and Fire, I realized that this was a consistent theme in those books as well. But I had originally focused so closely on the characters and their adventures, that I had overlooked its importance until reading them in conjunction with Bitterblue helped me see the parallels. In Graceling, Katsa struggles to redefine herself as someone other than the cold-blooded killer who acted as her uncle’s enforcer. But she is constantly confronted with stories people tell about her, stories that shape how other people see her. In Fire, the title character also struggles with the difference between her image and the person she knows she really is. In her case, the stories begin as descriptions of her as a horrible monster but change to tales of her as a beloved heroine. She knows that the truth lies somewhere between those extremes. But she also realizes that she cannot change the stories. In fact, both women come to accept that there will always be a disconnect between their private persona and the stories people tell about them. But those stories are an essential part of the way people understand other people. The stories, whether completely accurate or not, structure people’s perceptions of their experiences of the world around them.
In Bitterblue the importance of the stories is even greater because the stories are not just about one person or one event, but about the history of an entire country over the course of 35 years. The central problem is that entire sections of the past are missing because King Leck had erased people’s memories. One of the most poignant parts of the book for me, and what I think was a turning point in Bitterblue’s understanding of the problem, was when Bitterblue encounters the aborted stories being told by the tavern storytellers. These stories begin normally enough, but characters simply disappear mid-story with no explanations and the story ends. Yet the audiences react as if such stories are perfectly normal, because in their experience it is normal for people to simply have dropped out their lives with all memories of how it happened erased from their minds. These people need to have the stories completed in order to move on with their lives and recover.
Stories have power, and so can be a threat as well as a promise. The fact that those in power have often sought to control the flow of books and ideas as a means to control their subjects is a testament to that power. So it is perhaps inevitable that there are those in Bitterblue’s government who are threatened by the stories she seeks to discover. For them, the truth is not a source of healing, but a threat, a horror from which they seek to escape by denying it. In the process, they repeat the horrors of the past, extending the suffering of the people in order to protect themselves. The efforts to censor stories of past evils actually repeat those evils. King Leck burned print shops and killed those who tried to hold on to the memories. Bitterblue’s advisers also burn print shops and kill in order to keep suppressing those memories. While the censorship allows them to cope, it shackles the kingdom to the past and prevents the people from beginning the healing process.
On the surface, Bitterblue is the story of a young queen and her efforts to help her kingdom heal. It is about her struggle to balance the needs of some people for stories to help them understand their loss with the needs of others who want to forget because they can’t face the pain of the past. But on a deeper level, this book is about the evils of censorship and the damage that arises from attempts to suppress stories and ideas. If you haven’t yet read Bitterblue, I encourage you to do so. Let’s celebrate the power of stories!