Price’s make-believe invention, the vital part of a secret international project to colonise and exploit the past, is the Time Tube (cf H G Wells, 1895). While the Tube is in use, one half of it remains in the high tech surroundings of ‘the 21st’. The travelling end is seen to disappear into thin air, and to operate in a different dimension of time, ‘the 16th’. Passengers emerge on the wild tussocky hillsides of the ‘debatable land’ of the Borders, the home of feuding families, reivers, the Sterkarms. Proud and vindictive, they hold their land, Man’s-Home, by fighting for it against all corners. Their moods and moves swither according to what they regard as threat. No handshake binds them. They do not wonder at the Tube, but see it as the work of strangers from Elf-Land. Elves are welcome as guests bringing ‘wee white pills’ which soothe arthritis. As invaders, they are resisted to the utmost.
In this reversal of folk-tale visitations (Tam Lin, True Thomas and others), the Sterkarms’ sodden, smelly communal life in a tower amongst sheep and heather is the author’s stunning imaginative creation, fed and renewed, as is much of her earlier work, by the dark side of ballads and tales older than writing. In response to the detailed clarity of the descriptions, readers are bound to set aside any conception of Sterkarms as uncivilized robbers, the view held by Windsor, the boss of the Tube, and reach back to stylistic features of even older legendary heroes, or the stuff of Beowulf. For Price, the war of her two worlds is the age-old rivalry of nature and science.
The contrasts and conflicts between the ancients and moderns are skilfully limned in the character and actions of Andrea, the energetic, buxom, go-between anthropologist employed to report to the entrepreneurs on the nature and culture of the Sterkarms. Sympathetic, intuitive and an understanding observer, she is safe as a guest and the prospective bride of the only son of the family chief and his implacable, fearsome wife. She speaks the local language and knows the difficulty of conducting negotiations between two groups of people with irreconcilable notions of reality and human engagement: hand-to-hand fighting and kissing are normal for Sterkarms. When Per, the handsome, impetuous heir, Andrea’s friend and lover, is badly wounded in a raid, she organizes his removal by Tube to recovery in a 21st hospital. Because Per knows that to eat the food of Elf-Land is to remain for ever in thrall, he discharges himself. In a ring-road subway he meets another, modern Sterkarm, homeless Joe, who is glad to leave his cardboard box to serve Per as his liegeman. Per’s experience of the actualities of the 21st is one of the most expertly realized episodes in a story where attacks and blood-letting come straight from their atavistic sources.
When it comes, the inevitable encounter is relentless and prolonged. The men of the 21st plan to shock the Sterkarms into compliance. The Sterkarms plan an ambush to dispatch the Elves and nearly succeed, but, losing Per bound and gagged to the invaders, they are bound to follow when he is again taken to Elf-Land. Once there, the Sterkarms fight their way back, laying waste the installations of the Tube headquarters. Per goes back to Man’s-Home, as does Joe. Andrea stays in the 21st, but is not ever fully at home. Where, now, are the readers’ sympathies, so strenuously recruited throughout on the side of the ‘uncivilized’?
Science now offers writers an extended range of fictive ways of coding human values and behaviour. The Time Tube device works well enough, adding suspense. But it is the power of the storytelling, raised here to new heights by an expert, that encourages young readers, and others, to consider what they believe is of most worth.
By Margaret Meek
Review By Andy Sawyer
We all know that many writers marketed for children are superior to their ‘adult’ cotemporaries. Some of them are even recognised. Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, is now writing ‘for adults’. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy has a strong and committed adult following. The fact that a book (or any work of art) aimed at an audience which is younger than most is nothing to do with quality… Susan Price is a writer who has published over thirty books, including the Carnegie medal-winning The Ghost Drum although she has an adult following, it is probably not as large and committed as that of the writers mentioned above. Her latest novel, the startlingly magnetic The Sterkarm Handshake, carried off the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, and was short-listed for the Carnegie, and in that curious sub-genre of neo-border-ballad fiction, is the finest example since Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.
The world of the border ballads; the tribal warfare between the debateable regions claimed by both Scotland and England from the Middle Ages to the Sixteenth Century, is the nearest thing Great Britain has to the heroic epic of love and warfare. Like the Arthurian ‘Matter of Britain’ it contains tragic love and the perilous realm of the supernatural, but it remains purely secular and amoral. Susan Price reveals its glamour and its barbarism, the way we are both attracted and repelled by tales of honour and loyalty which turn out to be gang warfare with better poetry. In The Sterkarm Handshake an entrepreneurial twenty-first century has developed time travel… Raw materials are the main goal… Among the areas being plundered is the Border country around Carlisle: dominated by the Sterkarms whose treachery is famed and feared.
To the Sterkarms, the intruders are Elves: bringing aspirin in exchange for gold. To Windsor, who manages the project, the Sterkarms are simply barbarians living in squalor, to be exploited and cowed by a show of force. To Andrea Mitchell, the researcher, who has fallen in love with Per, the young son of the Sterkarms’ chieftain, the conflict between the two cultures is one which can be resolved by neither the economic violence of the twenty-first century or the bloodthirstiness of the sixteenth. Unable to commit herself to either side, to trade sexual passion for the loss of modern comforts, to countenance the betrayal of her workmates as they betray her new friends, she is swept up by rather than reacts to events, but these events become more and more violence and less and less easily definable in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sides. The volatile Sterkarms cannot understand why they should give up the traditions of raiding and feuding which are their way of life, and Windsor and his men make the fundamental mistake of confusing technological inferiority with lesser intelligence. Even Andrea, who knows the Sterkarms as people rather than ‘natives’ is startled by the way in which Per, exposed to the wondrous magics of ‘Elfland’ so quickly picks up a number of truths about modern society.
Price describes a clash of cultures which can easily be read as twentieth-century capitalism against its victims. But the strength of her novel is the story, and the way she gets into the heads of her characters. We understand Per, and his values – what in another culture would be called ‘machismo’ – as much as we do poor Andrea and supporting cast such as the security man Bryce and the young vagrant, Joe, a modern descendent of the Sterkarms who finds, ironically, personal and social stability in their way of life. When Per is grievously wounded on a raid against hs hereditary enemies, the Grannams, Andrea is forced to choose between saving his life and putting her job and the lives of her companions at risk by bringing him back through the Time Tube. To Per, his sojourn in the twenty-first century is like that of True Thomas or Tam Lyn in Elfland. He is healed by strange ‘magic’, shown strange ways of communication. To the Borderers, the Elves, with their glamour and treachery, are to be mistrusted. Tam Lin, we remember, is a hostage, to be given up to Hell. Songs and legends are full of examples of folk carried into the other realm, where a brief span turns out to be years and apparent treasure becomes trash. Ironically, Windsor’s plans to hold Per as security against the conduct of his clan follow precisely this model. Exploiting the perception of the Sterkarms that he and his team are ‘Elves’, Windsor fails to understand the implications of his actions. His inability to comprehend the world-view of the Border Raiders proves more damaging than their limited understanding of the forces which can be ranged against them. Meanwhile the burning sexuality of the relationship between Per and Andrea is plainly if tactfully expressed to become a movingly emblematic example of the difference between the cultures. One side of this is shown in the way Andrea’s physical form is much more attractive to the Sterkarms than to her contemporaries: ‘fat’ to her contemporaries, she is ‘bonny’ to the borderers. And as an Elf, she has her part to play in the inevitable narrative pattern. Once more, Per’s intuitive picture of what might happen proves clearer than Andrea’s indecision. Several times the story of a human man who married an Elf-maiden is told: a story which ends in loss and heartbreak. Andrea is caught between the ideals of her sexual desire and unwillingness to be complicit in the betrayal and exploitation of a group she had come to love, and her uneasy knowledge that life in the sixteenth century would involve, among other things, Per’s infidelity, frequent childbearing, drudgery, lack of sanitation and health, and an almost total abandonment of anything like the comforts of her everyday life as well as family and friends.
Like so many of the Border Ballads which infuse it, The Sterkarm Handshake is a story of love and war, violent and moving by turns. While I would doubt whether the author had this in mind, it is also an interesting reversal of the way ‘Elf’ – since the role-playing gamebooks collided with Tolkien – has become a generic staple of fantasy. Its status as ‘a children’s book’ does two things. First it allows the author a degree of selectivity in describing ‘taboo’ subjects: sexuality and violent combat are two of its main features, but Price avoids the (metaphorical) adolescent giggles with which adult genre writers tackle these subjects. She is a serious writer. Second, it allows the author to be story-teller rather than literary deconstructionist or political point-maker. There are actually elements of both in the novel but they arise, as they should, out of what the reader feels during the process of reading. Reading The Sterkarm Handshake, one turns the pages, involved with the characters, to find out what happens next. This is a stunning novel.
Review from Chinaberry, Summer 2001
Brilliant in every sense of the word, The Sterkarm Handshake is one of the most exciting, enjoyable books I have read in a long time. Highly imaginative, Susan Price has created an unforgettable novel that combines the best elements of history, romance, adventure and science fiction.
The Sterkarms live on the borderland between Scotland and England during the 16th century. Fierce and highly protective of their land, theyw ill do anything to maintain their control of it. The elves (time travelllers from the 21st century) have entered their world and are trying to get the Sterkarms to give up their violent ways so they can exploit the land for their own purposes. The Sterkarms have their own sense of honour, one that is foreign to to the modern ways of the elves, where a handshake binds one's word. The Sterkarms are left-handed so shaking right hands (as if the custom in the elf world) means they still have their weapon hand to use as they will. To the Sterkarms, loyalty is won through actions not words.
Andrea Mitchell, an anthropologist from the 21st century, has been sent back in time to live with the Sterkarms and learn their ways. In the process, she falls in love with the leader's son, Per. When Per in injured in a brutal battle, Andrea decides to save his life by taking him forward through time to be cared fro by modern doctors. While in the 21st century, Per learns just how poweful and corrupt the elves are and vows to protect his people from their intrusion. Andrea is torn between her love for Per and her loyalty to her own people. As the two cultures clash, Andrea must choose where her true loyalties lie.
Reading The Sterkarm Handshake, I found myself fully lost in the Sterkarm's world. Hours would go by and I would look up, completely surprised at the time. Normally I would be hesitant to put such a violent book in Chinaberry, but somehow the violence seemed in keeping with the context of the story. The real intrigue of this book lies in the meeting of these two equally greedy, untrustworthy cultures, where men say one thing and do another, each feeling totally justified in their actions. There is no better word to describe The Sterkarm Handshake than gripping! Winner of a 1999 Guardian Fiction Prize and short-listed for the Carnegie Medal, this English favourite has finally been published in the States.
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