Tuesday, December 12, 2006

BOOKS | Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men

By Terry Pratchett

Technically, this book is shelved under the Young Adult section of the library. But this is Terry Pratchett we're talking about, so it's definitely going to be more intelligent than a lot of "Adult Fiction" published these days.

I adore his absurdist humour, probably because it's such a good take on life as I know it. The amazing thing about Pratchett is that he's most serious when he's at his funniest. He slips in truth between the punchlines, and yet never loses his faith in humanity.

This is my first Terry Pratchett novel since The Fifth Elephant. I was disappointed by Fifth Elephant as it felt weak, and without his core of absurdist humour to uphold the narrative it fell into a kind of angsty flatness. For a long time I wondered if Pratchett was losing steam with his one-book-every-year deal. But I decided I had to pick up The Wee Free Men because it's his first Witches book in a long time. (If you're a Discworld fan, you'll probably be familiar with the ensemble cast of the Discworld series — and among my favourites are Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Given enough alcohol, I could probably do a rendition of the Hedgehog song. Oh, the gods themselves do tremble.)

I love Wee Free Men. It's Pratchett back to form. His humour's intact, with his usual dash of common sensibility tongue-twisting with Discworld insanity.

Wee Free Men is the second of his Discworld story in the Young Adult genre. But this is the one where he introduces the nine year-old witch-to-be, Tiffany Aching — and she's such a charmer that she gets a couple more books after this one — A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith.

The story in a nutshell: Tiffany Aching is a nine year-old girl in a big farming family living in Chalk country. She helps out at the farm and is good at making cheese and butter. Tiffany is also grand-daughter to the previous witch of Chalk country, Granny Aching, and is gifted with the First Sight and Second Thoughts.

Then something went horribly wrong (as they usually do in Discworld. It's necessary plot element to have reality caving on Discworld). Monsters from your worst nightmares are intruding into the reality. Tiffany Aching's baby brother, Wentworth is kidnapped and young Tiffany, armed with a frying pan and her uncommonly sharp common sense is going to rescue him. Along the way she allies herself with the local Nac Mac Feegle — the Wee Free Men — six-inch-high blue men with red-hair and Scottish accent that steals, fights and drinks with roaring gusto. Without a doubt, the clan of the Nac Mac Feegle is Pratchett's most brilliant creation since The Librarian. They are like Smurfs gone wrong — loud, rude, drunk, mad and terribly funny.

This is about how Tiffany Aching comes to her ability and her purpose. Hidden among the farce and the fairy tale is a fable on growing up to ask the inconvenient questions (like where do the baby hedgehogs come from) and taking responsilibity. Pratchett doesn't whitewash the issue in his stories, and that is why I love his books. All choices involve sacrifices, and coming into maturity involves taking responsibility. Being a witch is about the responsibility, and ultimately learning why the most difficult lesson of a witch is learning NOT to use her power. He illustrated this touchingly in the character of Granny Weatherwax in his previous Discworld novels. Here, he's taking it from another angle. Towards the end, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg make cameo appearance. And Tiffany earns Weatherwax's grudging respect — which tells me we're definitely going to see A LOT of Tiffany Aching.

Yet the most beautiful parts of Wee Free Men for me is the portrait of Tiffany's grandmother, Granny Aching. Granny Aching was dead by the time the story began, her story told through flashbacks as Tiffany's memories. But Granny Aching has come to occupy the heart of the story; the most important lessons Tiffany learnt were from memories of how things were done Granny Aching's way. Granny Aching is the soul of the Chalk country, the mountains are in her bones. She never rests if a single sheep is lost. She speaks for those who have no voice, and she is silent, always listening. She is the soul of the land that smokes a filthy pipe and walks around in old boots, smelling of tobacco, turpentine and sheep.

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