Confession time: I have a thing for books featuring captive women. Since I refuse to read (most) mainstream romance novels because 1) it’s not my thing and 2) I’m not comfortable ready super sexy scenes, I’ve not actually read very many books that you would think of when I first say “captive heroine.”
It started with Indian captive stories written for teen readers. We’re talking things like Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, The Beaded Moccasin, and The Ransom of Mercy Carter. Then I moved on to some inspirational fiction with pirates.
I’m thinking the reason I like these types of stories is because I’m fascinated by the way people maintain their sense of self and/or shift how they present themselves when forced into an unfamiliar culture. Also, power dynamics in relationships fascinate me.
And so we come to Spirited by Nancy Holder. Described as a fantasy-tinged retelling of Last of the Mohicans merged with Beauty and the Beast, it caught my attention quickly for my Flights of Fantasy reading list. And held it pretty well while I was reading, thought some aspects distracted from the story line.
The fantasy element comes from a pretty straight-forward premise: let’s assume the Indian spiritualism is not only real but literal. There are “little people” who appear as characters in the book. Wusamequin’s spirit guide, Great Bear, appears in the real world and fights alongside him. As a medicine man, Wusamequin heals by going into the spirit world and battling the evil trying to steal a person’s soul into the realm of death.
That’s all handled well. In fact, Wusamequin’s character and the fantasy elements were probably the most compelling part of the book. My main concerns were with Isabella’s character and the way the author describes her.
A Lengthy Tirade On Corsets
The story opens with a scene that distracted me with questions the entire time I was reading. It bothered me that even after I figured out (or thought I did) how the scene played out, it still didn’t make sense. Here’s the setting: Isabella and her father are riding to Fort William Henry and she’s having trouble breathing because she’s laced her corset too tight. They’re attacked by Indians and while fumbling through the mud near the creek she conveniently finds a knife and cuts her corset off. Since it’s set in 1757, that corset would have looked something like this:
This would have been worn under her dress and over a shift. In the story, Isabella takes the knife, “aimed it directly at her sternum, and brought it downward. She began to saw at the lacing of her corset, and gasped aloud when the first crisscross of dark green ribbons was severed” (p. 38). Then she yanks the two sections of her corset apart (which would be rather difficult considering most were laced over a stiff boned stomacher and not a two-part front panel). Front lacing corsets were very rare in the 18th century and the only example I found dates from 20 years after this book’s setting. The main lacing for getting in and out of corsets was in back, and that’s true of Isabella’s corset as well, as we know because earlier she contemplated having her father help her loosen her stays.
So, after impossibly ripping her corset in twain, she spits out her knife (a line I still haven’t figured out), picks it up again, and an Indian grabs her and pins her to the ground. At this point, the “two torn panels” of her “loose, drenched bodice” have separated and “though she was covered it was only in the broadest sense of the word”(p. 43). I’m forced to make two conclusions. 1) she’s may not have been wearing a dress over her corset and 2) she’s certainly not wearing a shift under it because when he moved “the ruined corset away from her stomach” his fingers touch bare skin.
Honestly at this point I was more concerned with her anachronistic fashion sense than with the danger to her virtue (don’t worry; she is rescued). And after all this, her father only notices there’s a bruise on her cheek. Um, your daughter is walking around mostly topless after being attacked by Indians and you don’t care?!
Strong Female Character?
A main premise of the story is that Wusamequin spares Isabella because he is “quite taken with how bravely Isabella battles” (from back cover). Her brave battling involves shrieking loudly for help and stabbing a man who’s literally on top of her with a knife in the chest to produce a wound that’s not only non-fatal but so shallow it doesn’t affect him in the least. And then there’s this scene in the Indian camp:
The young woman had thrown herself on top of her father’s still form and was kicking out at anyone who tried to come close enough to harm him. … She had balled her fists and was punching at the air, crying and shrieking like the winter wind. What was left of her dress was in shreds, but she gave no thought to her once-treasured modesty. (p. 61)
Picture this scene in a film. You have a mostly naked heroine beating the air and shrieking like a madwoman while the hero gazes in appreciation. You’re probably not going to walk away from that scene with the sense that she’s a well-written character who exists in the story for a reason of her own.
That’s all in the first few pages and it doesn’t get much better. The only way she asserts herself is by insulting and pushing away Wusamequin, her only defender in the Indian camp. And he responds by continuing to save her on the multiple occasions she manages to get herself nearly killed.
*SPOILER WARNING* The only time Isabella successfully does anything on her own is when she escapes at the end of the book and returns to her dying father. And then her enemy, a girl who loves Wusamequin, has to come get her so she can go back to Wusamequin and save him from death. Not because there’s anything really special about her, but because he was stupid enough to give her part of his spirit and she was negligent enough to let the medicine pouch be burned. Also, his magic is stronger when she’d around even though she doesn’t seem to have any magic of her own (hum, a female character who’s main role in the story is to make the male character look better. Does that seem right to you?).
But On The Other Hand …
Maybe I’m judging this book too harshly. The way Indian magic was incorporated as a fantasy element was well-done and it fit into the story smoothly. I just didn’t like Isabella’s character. Wusamequin wasn’t really a favorite either, but I could at least follow his thought process and felt he was internally consistent.
Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale, so anything claiming to stand as a retelling has high expectations to live up to. And Isabella wasn’t like Belle from any of the versions I enjoy. She shrieked, sobbed, and stumbled her confusingly clothed way through the story with very little character development. She made it to the ending alright and forced Wusamequin’s magic in a peaceful direction (with sparkling rainbows no less), but that was by luck more than design. But it did spark a fascinating study into 18th century corsets. I’ll give it an “it was okay” rating of 2/5 stars on Goodreads.