Riding Tycho by Jan Mark

Title: Riding Tycho
Author: Jan Mark
Series : First in a series.  Sequel is “Voyager”


In Short:
Eleven year old Demetria lives on the High Island with her mother and her older brother.  Her life is dominated by unspoken rules.  People do not speak about the prison island on the horizon – Low Island.  Sometimes there is an escape attempt, and the sirens keep her awake all night – but nobody mentions it the next day.  There are prisoners on the High Island too.  They are called “Politicals” and  live with the village families.  One day, the soldiers bring a Political to live with Demetria’s family. But Political 37250 does not obey the unspoken rules. And as she gets to know him, Demetria’s view of her world changes forever.


What I thought: This is a powerful book.  It is very short – only 215 pages – but it succeeds in creating a thoroughly chilling vision of Demetria’s world. It is difficult to know what to reveal about the plot.  This is one of those books with a definite “twist” that must be kept as a surprise.  This is very well done.  Demetria is a very young eleven years old.  Everything  is presented to the reader from her limited point of view,  and as the veil of her ignorance is gradually pulled away by her conversations with the political prisoner Ianto Morgan, the reader learns the truth about her situation just as she does herself.

If some-one had told me what the theme of this book was I would probably not have read it.  I try to protect myself from depressing and upsetting books.  But in the case of “Riding Tycho”, I would have missed reading a story that transcends its grim subject matter.   In Demetria’s world, women are severely oppressed, both psychologically and physically.  Little brothers are encouraged to hit  their older sisters “so that they can get used to it.”  Husbands rule with their fists.  Education for girls begins and ends with learning how to knit.   But this world is seen through the eyes of a little girl for whom all of this is thoroughly normal.

For example – in this village, there is only one mirror. It is in the barber shop, and only men are allowed to look at it.  So the little girls  have developed “the Looking Glass Game”.  Here is Demetria and her friend Stephane:

The Looking Glas Game was played in pairs. Stephane wanted to play it now. “Tell me how I look.”  Demetria stared back.  You had to start off with the ordinary things.  “Your hair’s yellow.”  All islanders were blond, that was easy.  “Your eyes are blue and they go up at the corners. You’ve got a brown spot under your left eye.  Your nose comes to a point – open your mouth.  That side tooth’s gone, but it only shows when you smile.  The new one’s coming through.”
”  What about the chipped one? ”
“It’s still chipped.  That sore place under your chin is nearly healed. ”
“Good.  Your turn.”

It is risky playing this game, as little girls can be cruel.  “Your mouth is wide like  a hop-toad”  Stephane tells Demetria.

While Demetria accepts all of this as normal, she also wonders why things are this way.  The conversations she has with the Political encourages these questions.  Where do the logs come from that was up on the beach?  Why are some of them called “whales” and some “dolphins”?  Why do women sink like anchors, while men can swim?

I loved Demetria.  She  reminds me of two two other very different characters.  The first is Laura Ingalls in the “little house” series,  rebelling against the strict rules of church and parents.   The other is Tenar in Ursula Le Guin’s  The Tombs of Atuan, a strong willed little girl surviving the oppressive priestesses of Atuan.  Just like Demetria, Tenar learns the truth about herself and her world through a forbidden friendship with a prisoner.

This is a profound little book.  Jan Mark completely avoids using the shock tactics she so easily could have used with this subject matter.  Demetria’s journey from innocence into knowledge is thoroughly convincing.  She has become one of my favorite characters.  I cant wait to read the sequel – Voyager.

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