Author: Susan McGee Britton
When a baby in her village falls gravely ill, only Bird, a tough, streetwise urchin, has the presence of mind to rush for a special kind of help. The baby survives after her forehead is rubbed with a mysterious liquid … and Bird’s life alters irreversibly. She learns that the liquid is not just any medicine, but thalasse, a magical elixir outlawed by her world’s evil ruler, Rendarren. Having witnessed the illegal thalasse, Bird is suddenly in grave danger.
She is whisked away to a remote cottage, where three orphans, a friendly chimera, and a kitten become her companions. There Bird discovers that she is the one prophesied to unclasp an enchanted locket containing the last seed of the sacred thalasse-producing tree, the Tree That Speaks.
But as soon as Bird opens the locket, the powerful Rendarren takes action. Bird’s adult guardians disappear, and her safe haven is destroyed. Now the successful delivery of the seed to its rightful place – wherever that might be – depends entirely on Bird’s determination, cleverness, and courage.
Rating: Unforgettable, Heart-ful
The First Review:
The Treekeepers is one of those books that I liked so much that I have a hard time saying anything about it; sometimes it seems that the more I like something, the less I can say about it. It’s a story about humanity; character, truth and love, flaw and failure and redemption, forgiveness and accepting forgiveness, what kindness means.
Bird, the streetwise orphan, is not always nice. She can make a nuisance of herself, and she can even be mean sometimes. But she is kind, caring, and loyal. She loves Piper – the baby who falls ill – dearly, and when Piper falls ill, Bird tries everything she can and risks whatever she has to, without hesitation, to get help for her. And when Stoke’s – one of the three orphans – hand is hurt and bleeding, Bird offers her beloved star-blanket, her only link to the father whose love she is so desperate for, to bind his wound. Her meannesses are all of the petty sort, that are not meant to do any real harm, and she is fiercely loyal and protective of those she loves. Other desires never cloud her loyalty or what comes first. But she sometimes overreacts, and she makes a very foolish mistake and then gets fatally distracted.
There’s a prophecy that goes,
Wrapped in light leaves of the life Tree,
Wreathed by the wings of sparrows,
Beauty’s Wen child bares the bright Seed,
Small one come in kindness plants it.
Where the Treekeep tends and deep digs,
Where the sea-kind cry from scarp-sky
Where the olden stone kings still weep,
There the Holder spends His splendor.
And that makes someone protests that there’s no way that Bird can be the Opener Child – since, of course, everyone wants to be the Opener Child and Bird is no exception, even though she denies it – because Bird’s kindness isn’t of the obvious sort. She often is not nice. But she is kind.
Soladin and Farwender’s stories are heart-touching. Soladin is the one who keeps the cottage where Bird meets the orphans, the cat Finder, and the chimera Ally (both animals with whom she becomes fast friends), and Farwender is the one who administered the thalasse to the baby, Piper. Soladin was the Treekeeper of Wen and Farwender was the Watchman of Wen, before, through their failures and refusal in both their tasks, they allowed Rendarren to kill the Tree That Speaks. And the sorrow runs so deep through Soladin.
It is a heart-touching story about kindness, good-heartedness, failure and evil, redemption and forgiveness, and how accepted, acknowledged forgiveness changes one’s heart and life, and about failures that are very real, but even when it seems all is lost, the way is still being prepared for the restoration of that which was lost. It’s beautiful and both symbolic and character-driven, the symbols limited by the setting and the characters and enriched even by their limitations. Every sentence is so significant, and the words and metaphors are well-chosen and full of meaning.
The Real Review:
As with all (or almost all) of the books I have loved best, some of the parts that best exemplify to me what I love are what other people might consider spoilers.
Rendarren killed the Tree That Speaks. Soladin’s failure allowed Rendarren to kill the Tree That Speaks. Farwender let that happen, by saying nothing when Soladin refused the thalasse. And Bird – Bird let Farwender capture her again and, and with her the Key That Sees that she took off his ear, the Key to the Hidden Garden where the Tree That Speaks grew and must be planted again, by her need to prove she could have killed Farwender, by getting distracted by her desire for a rain-coat, and so Farwender destroyed the Key That Sees.
But all that – they are forgiven and the Tree That Speaks is planted again.
I can’t say everything I liked about this book. It’s not the same out of context. But here a few short excerpts of parts that really spoke to me.
This is from the first time that Bird is captured by Farwender. She doesn’t really believe in the Holder at this point, and she is afraid that her past failures have made her unable to open the Locket. She is in a cell, to be starved to death, since anyone who directly acts to kill her will die, while she remains untouched, as long as she carries the Locket. Across the cell from her is Benwin, whose hand is marked by an X since Rendarren has all who received the thalasse scared in such a way, who is condemned to be hung in the morning. And I really don’t know what to share, since every scene and sentence matters so much, and nothing is the same apart from all of it. The words are so beautiful, but the story is even more so.
Bird pulled out the Locket and held it in her hand. She ran her finger over the engraving of the Tree on its surface. She wanted to comfort Benwin, as he had comforted her. She decided to try to open the Locket for him. Pushing back her fear, she touched her finger to its clasp. To her joy, the Locket opened as easily as the wings of a butterfly. The Seed spumed white sparks into the night, and all the prisoners oohed and aahed. “What is that?” they asked. “How are you able to cast stars into the night?”
Later, when Bird is captured again and the Key That Sees is destroyed, she is cast into the dungeon below the ancient city of the Watchfolk.
Soldiers locked her in a dungeon cell carved into the sea rock. Waves pounded against the outside wall. How long would they keep her here? At least the cell was bigger than the cage. She could stand up and walk. Through a window about the size of a human face, she could see the ocean, silvery quiet in the morning light.
Still she wore the Locket, entrusted to her care. She had done what could be done. She had not helped the darkness.
In the afternoon, the sun would strike through the window, making a patch of sunlight on the rock floor of the cell. The patch would slowly move across the floor, rise up on the wall, and then, at sunset, turn orange, fade, and vanish. Bird loved this patches of sunlight. It warmed the rock where it fell. She would put her cold bare feet on the warm place, or press her hand or cheek against it so the heat could seep into her bones. Clouded days were so much harder than sunny ones, because the sun patch was gone.
She thought of her friends, especially Piper, until sometimes she wept. Often then she opened the Locket. The Seed light was never the same. One time it offered the quiet paleness of dawn. Another time it cast a light that trembled with leaf shadows. Once, it filled the cell with such brilliance that she had to close her eyes. It was as if she had looked directly at the sun.
And then there is when Bird bites Rendarren – Rendarren is not the first person Bird bites – and together she and her friends defeat him! I like how Bird thinks about what she can do, how fierce and intelligent – usually – and loyal she is! I like how she never believes herself defeated or too weak or insignificant to try. To be honest, almost every flaw society would see in Bird, I think is a virtue. She’s awesome. Even her arrogance, her belief that she would never be deceived and other things, may be a flaw, but it is no greater a flaw than the lack of confidence and the doubt that others have. It is but confidence mis-understood.
Bird overheard a mother say, as she scolded her child, “Now Husk, behave yourself. Be good like Bird.” Bird laughed to herself, thinking how that mother might feel if Husk started biting people.
And there’s nothing I liked more than the planting of the Tree a few years later.
Everybody had always thought the foretelling described the old Hidden Garden, but instead it described a new place – this one.
A gull cried, a wave smashed, and the stone faces wept again. Bird opened the Locket. The Seed burned as a candle flame, steady despite the gusty wind. It gave no sign that this was the moment to plant it.
And when, a little later, Bird receives the thalasse:
And then, all at once, Bird felt a goodness wash through her that made every other thing she had ever known, no matter how sweet or clean, seem somehow tainted or shadowed. Then she knew the Holder had kept her all the days of her life. His hands had wrapped her in her star blanket and brought her to Old Hunch. He had guided Farwender to Graynok Market. He had caused Finder to jump into the middle of the feast just in time to save her from Rendarren. He had given her Benwin’s scarred hand to hold her first night in Rendarren’s cage. He was the whirlwind in her dream and the small square of light in her dungeon cell.
And I really, really liked how much Bird loved the chimera, Ally! I also liked Stoke. He is so raw, hurt, and arrogant too, in more ways than one and some of them quite damaging to himself, and intelligent, too, and it does not help him – or the other children – when they mock his knowledge and intelligence as arrogance.
This is one of those stories that I can’t begin to describe adequately.