Book Bag: ‘Voices in the Mist’ by Susanne Dunlap; ‘Maasai: A Novel of Love, War, and Witchcraft in 19th century East Africa’ by Elliot Fratkin

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2021 2:43:29 PM

Voices in the Mist by Susanne
Dunlap; Bellastoria Press

 

Northampton author Susanne Dunlap specializes in historical fiction, primarily for young adult readers, and her novels have used a range of settings: the world of classical music in 18th-century Europe, the Crimean War, and Czarist Russia during World War I. More recently she’s investigated medieval France in a pair of linked novels, “Listen to The Wind” and “The Spirit of Fire.”

Those two books are part of a trilogy, “The Orphans of Tolosa,” that explores the early 13th century in what is now southwestern France, but then was a largely independent land known as Languedoc (also called The Midi), where the most common language was Occitan, somewhat related to Catalan.

Languedoc was also the home of the Cathars, unorthodox Christians who were attacked as heretics by forces of the Catholic Church and France, in a campaign known as the Albigensian Crusades, because they had different beliefs about God.

“Listen to The Wind” and “The Spirit of Fire” traced the adventures of Azalaïs and Azemar, two young children who in 1235 are hidden in a forest by their parents for reasons they don’t understand. The two become separated but are later reunited as teenagers, after Azalaïs ends up betrothed to a brutal nobleman and Azemar, a knight in training, helps her escape. The friends take part in a fateful siege at a castle where Cathar forces make a last stand against a French army sworn to destroy the heretics.

With “Voices in the Mist,” her newest book, Dunlap completes her trilogy. The new volume, though, is a prequel, beginning in 1229 in Tolosa (the old name for the French city of Toulouse); it’s narrated by Bruna de Gansard, Azalaïs’ older sister. Bruna is a 15-year-old Cathar girl who discovers that the “inquisitors” (Catholic bishops and priests) and French knights have arrived in Tolosa; they plan to root out the non-believers by questioning every adult and young person, including girls over 12 years of age.

To protect her, Bruna’s parents want to marry her off to a young Catholic merchant, Alaman de Bosquet, who’s attracted to her and also sympathetic to the Cathars. But Bruna wants no part of an arranged marriage, so she runs away and somehow ends up as part of a barona’s (a noblewoman) pilgrimage to Compostela, in Spain. She’s soon caught in a life of deceit, forced to masquerade as a Catholic.

At one point, one of the women in the barona’s entourage loops a crucifix around Bruna’s neck, leading her to castigate herself inwardly: “How quickly I had descended deeper and deeper into deception and treachery, into defying every tenet of our faith. Shame engulfed me.”

It’s a theme Dunlap explored in the first two books in the trilogy, in which Azalaïs, as a teen, also had to take on fake identities to survive, at one point passing herself off as a nobleman’s daughter. She’s married to the Baron de Belascon, whose nasty and Cathar-hating mother is continually suspicious of her.

It’s just Bruna’s luck that the Barona de Belascon is the one leading the pilgimage to Compostela, thus linking the two sisters to the same wicked woman. What’s more, Bruna’s good looks and fine singing voice bring her to the attention of the Baron de Belascon — the same hard-nosed man who will later marry the teenage Azalaïs as he seeks to produce a male heir.

Like the first two volumes of the trilogy, “Voices in the Mist” is told mostly from the standpoint of a young female narrator who attests to the sexual violence women could be subjected to and the absolute obedience they must show to their husbands. In past interviews with the Gazette, Dunlap said she likes using female narrators because so much history is told from the male standpoint — and because she likes “finding ways for my characters to overcome the kinds of barriers women could face.”

And there will be more obstacles for Bruna to overcome, such as when a French knight who had met her in Tolosa comes to the Belascon castle and recognizes Bruna — then threatens to reveal her identity to further his own ends.

Yet she also has one person in her corner: Alaman, the young Catholic man from Tolosa who wanted to marry her and is still determined to try to get her to safety.

“Voices in the Mist” can be read on its own, but readers of “Listen to The Wind” and “The Spirit of Fire” will also likely want to fill in some of the background to the trilogy’s second two volumes and enjoy Dunlap’s descriptions of a very different time and way of life in a rugged, unspoiled land of mountains, forests, rivers and mostly small settlements.

Susanne Dunlap’s website is susanne-dunlap.com.

 

Maasai by Elliot Fratkin; Africa World Press

 

Elliot Fratkin, a Smith College professor emeritus of African studies and anthropology, spent years studying the nomadic peoples in various countries, especially the Maasai, cattle herders in Kenya and northern Tanzania. In addition to teaching in Eritrea and Ethiopia, he also visited pastoral peoples in Mongolia, Botswana, Ethiopia and Mali.

Aside from publishing a memoir in 2012 about his fieldwork, as well as many scholarly papers and studies, Fratkin also wrote a few years ago about returning to Kenya to visit old friends among the Samburu people of Kenya, with whom he had lived for a time in the 1970s as a graduate student.

Now Fratkin has turned his interest and knowledge of the region into a novel, “Maasai: A Novel of Love, War, and Witchcraft in 19th century East Africa.” It’s based on true events from that period, when widespread battles for grazing rights were fought between pastoralist groups in the sweeping grasslands and rolling terrain of Kenya and northern Tanzania, especially in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya.

As Fratkin notes, the fiercest of these groups were the Laikipiak Maasai, who dominated the Great Rift Valley until their defeat in the 1870s. The novel focuses on two Maasai lovers, Maron and Endelepin, and their son Kitoip, as they struggle with war, outbreaks of smallpox, a scourge of slave traders — and then the arrival of Europeans and the beginning of colonialism.

It’s a story filled with detailed descriptions of day-to-day life and customs of these pastoral peoples, from the foods they eat to the clothes they wear, and how warriors prepare for battle or the possibility of it. In one early scene, a small group of Maasai, out protecting their herd, draw blood from one of their steers by shooting it with an arrow; they mix it with milk from their cows, then take draughts in turn from a bucket.

“It was not enough food for everyone, but it would have to do,” Fratkin writes. “The warriors loved the taste of blood, it made them feel powerful and some even shook their bodies in an expression of strong emotion.”

There are plenty of battle scenes as well, where the action is all up-close and personal, with spears, swords, clubs, and arrows used to dispatch enemies. Fratkin has said he used stories and oral histories from older peoples and his own research of the Maasai to paint a portrait of this turbulent time.

As one reviewer of the novel writes, “Fratkin deftly focuses on the intersections of gender, violence, culture, misery, love, mysticism and bravery in Africa’s most fabled ethnic group.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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