by Tom Hastings, Director of PeaceVoice, Professor of Conflict Studies at Portland State University
This novel should be read aloud to everyone, by everyone, from childhood onward. It is an auspicious beginning to a new mythology of peace, of justice, of inclusion, of conversion and transformation. Rivera Sun’s care for the unobtrusive embedding of the theories of change, of the principles of conflict transformation, and the way of the human heart all conspire to allow for a tale that will inspire. It is ancient and magical and legendary. It flips the glory of big men waging war into the valorization of “powerless” ‘tween girls waging peace, the sacralization of bloody combat into the lionization of nonviolent heart and mind power. It does so credibly, which is the stumbling block to most fiction writers trying to achieve what Rivera Sun actually does manage to do here.
If the reader were told at the outset that an 11-year-old girl would defeat the mightiest warrior of the nation without inflicting any pain or harm—this is in a medieval time of swords and teapots, warriors and monasteries—you would not continue reading. But by the time it happens, you have been prepared by Sun’s artful storytelling to accept—even expect and demand—just that outcome. Like any good plotmaster, Sun describes many setbacks, much potential, lots of inner conflicting emotions, but it’s all undergirded by the unflinching idealism of youth. The girl is mixed ethnicity and raised by a third people, thus bearing the strengths—and some of the challenges—of all three peoples, all of whom have been either in conflict or avoiding one another.
What is so poignant is that the girl is not accepted too much by any group—the forest people raise her but she is not one of them and cannot follow them to their wintering place, the village boys torment her, the monastery warriors-in-training taunt her and even beat her in her early training phases—but her idealism and her potential push her toward her own special destiny. The girl is the underdog at every turn but we learn to expect her to rise to meet all challenges. Her flash of serendipitous and even accidental brilliance convinces a great warrior to take her as apprentice and he teaches her the ancient, all-but-forgotten, Way Between—neither the violence of the warrior nor the avoidance of the coward.
No, there is no didactic artifice to teach us the particulars of principled negotiation, CLARA de-escalation, peer mediation, Sharpian or Kingian strategic civil resistance or any other of the researched competencies in the field of Peace and Conflict Studies, even though Sun is in her professional life profoundly knowledgeable of all this. Rather, Rivera Sun writes in a style as magical as Tolkien and as authentic as Twain. The reader is not once bludgeoned with the zealot’s pontificating but rather is drawn to love the characters and the conclusions.
This book, along with her instant classic The Dandelion Insurrection will be on the reading list next time I teach Peace Novels, my favorite summer class.
Sun’s appendices carry all the theoretical, competency-based, and practical teachings that she wove invisibly into her tale. She helps the reader achieve the education necessary to reify her yarn and it makes it an invitational, educational, volume. Required reading for those wishing to be the countervailing message and meaning as we head into the Age of the Avenging Autocrat. Read it soon. We need you to pass it along.