Once in a while I find out I’ve missed something important in the book world, some classic that’s been out forever that I somehow never noticed when it was first published, something that turns out to be wonderful.
Then once in a very great while I find something I wish I’d read thirty years before it was ever published.
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s novels about Michigan pioneer practitioner Alfreda Sorensson (more properly, Eldonsdottir) came to my notice in 2013 and simply blew me away. These books, Night Calls, Kindred Rites, and Spiral Path, are coming-of-age pagan classics full of woodcraft and hedgewitchery and the overpowering magic of nature itself.
We meet Alfreda in a harsh winter in Michigan Territory sometime during President Jefferson’s administration. Her family is land-rich and cash-poor. They own a big chunk of forest in a prime trapping area, and furs are one of their cash crops, along with cloth and clothing the family’s women make. But the family has two fascinating higher values: surviving sustainably in nature, and practicing magic.
Allie comes from a long line of powerful practitioners. (A practitioner is a magician and healer.) Both her mother and her father’s family have gifts. Her father, though not trained, honed his natural gifts, but her mother, whose line is more powerful, turned her back on such things at an early age and sought to protect Allie from entering that eternally testing profession. At eleven Allie is plunged into horrors that only a practitioner can battle. This happens the same year that her father puts her out into the snow with instructions to build shelter and find food; her account of her family’s traditional survival test is one of the richest and most rewarding, if least fantastical, parts of Night Calls, the first book.
These books do not let you rest. Allie is constantly in heart-thumping danger, being tested by benevolent and evil forces, by her human teachers, by human enemies, and by adult-sized moral questions, though she begins at age eleven. The pioneer setting simply takes it for granted that everyone, of every age, must meet every challenge as it comes with whatever tools they have, even if they’re only children. Allie’s parents seem at first rigid and demanding, if loving, working their children every hour of the day, enforcing a stern ethical code at all times. Then you see what they’re all up against: from unfriendly Native American neighbors to wandering werewolves and vampires to the harshness of an upper-Midwestern winter.
And it’s clear that Allie is going to be something special. Her growing power attracts menacing attentions and dangerous allies. She has no choice but to learn as fast as she possibly can, and to bring her courage to every single hour of every day. She is only grateful, as the world and otherworlds throw challenges at her, for the rigors of her upbringing.
I was brought up by Germanic pagans, that is, by people who may have been raised rigidly Christian, or openly godless in rebellion to the prior generation’s Christianity; but in every generation there is a bowel-deep reverence for nature that simply bypasses all those human rites and dogmas. The most devout German family takes a walk in the woods every Sunday. They don’t talk about gods or naiads or nixies. They just make darned sure to soak themselves once a week in “the other church,” the church of trees and birds and fungi and furry critters. My family moreover were all ecology activists long before there was a name for that. So Allie’s wild magic, as she learns to call it when she goes to an uptight magic school in Spiral Path, feels intensely real and positive to me. I wish I could have read these books when I was Allie’s age. Even with my eco-warrior family background, I believe they would have changed my life forever.
Don’t expect every mystery in every book to be explained. This is a long, long story, coming slowly—too slowly, Ms. Kimbriel! May we see book four sooner than twenty years, please? But oh, it’s worth waiting for.
PS, there’s a “missing episode” in Allie’s life recorded in a short story called Wings of Morning, a chapbook from Yard Dog Press. See it here.
Night Calls, Book View Cafe, 2014
Kindred Rites, Book View Cafe, 2014
Spiral Path, Book View Cafe, 2014
Wings of Morning, Yard Dog Press, 2013
This article is reposted with thanks from The Green Man Review, July 13, 2018.