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A Knot in the Grain, and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 11, 2023

Out of print so not listed at Bookshop. Buy used copies or for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Another short collection from Robin McKinley. Less than 200 pages, only five stories, but all are very good. The first two have a slight connection to the Damar novels, just one character, the mage Luthe, who is very long lived. I think it likely both "The Healer" and "The Stagman" are set before The Hero and the Crown, or else they just share the character but don't directly connect with the novels, even though Damar is mentioned once, late in the second story.

"The Healer" is Lily, a girl born mute, but she later learns to whistle in bird song in order to communicate. At the age of twelve she is apprenticed to the midwife who had birthed her. She learns the growing and blending of herbs from Jolin, and becomes an even more effective healer, helping many in all the nearby villages. Returning home one day she encounters a man on the road, not Luthe, but one of his students, who had thought he had lost his magic ability. One thing he had retained was "mind speech," which delights Lily. Now she is able to have a conversation with someone. Even though Jolin recognized the mage mark on the man, Sahath, she does not possess his telepathic ability. Sahath takes Lily to Luthe's mountain stronghold, where the senior mage is able to repair her vocal cords and bring her the wonder of speech.

"The Stagman" is similar to a story in the previous collection I reviewed, but also different. The title character is a man/stag hybrid who saves Princess Ruen from the torture initiated by her uncle the Regent, taking her to Luthe to heal and learn what she needs to know to become the new Queen. A prince from an adjacent country finds her, takes her to his castle, they marry, then travel back to Arn, where they find the Regent is dead and the Princess is welcomed back by the populace that had previously ignored her. She isn't satisfied to be Queen though, and sneaks away from the castle to reunite with the Stagman. The other story it is slightly related to is "The Hunting of the Hind," which was about a princess kidnapped by a red deer. A hind is the female of the species, the stag being the male.

It is possible "Touk's House" is set somewhere on the Damarian continent, but nothing in the text would confirm that. A woodsman passes by the garden of a witch woman daily, wondering what she might be up to beyond her hedges. His new-born daughter suffers from a fever, and the village healer says there is no hope unless he can find a particular herb. He describes the plant, the woodsman is sure he has seen that in the witch's garden, so he sneaks in to steal some of the leaves to brew a tea. The witch discovers him, tells him he has picked the wrong plant, shows him the one he needs, and that he can take it for a price. The price is if his daughter survives he must turn her over to the witch to raise. The witch, Maugie, names her adopted daughter Erana. Touk is Maugie's son, but he is only half human, or maybe less than that if Maugie is not completely human. One of the reasons I think this could be connected to Damar is that Touk's father was a troll from the north, and in the Damar novels the northeners were considered something other than human. There's a lot more to the story than that, but I don't want to reveal too much. Erana is fond of Touk, but also wants to see the world beyond Maugie's hedges. She doesn't go to see her real family, instead travels to the capital city. She has the opportunity to stay there, occupying a very high position, but instead she returns to live with Touk in his newly built house.

In "Buttercups," a widowed farmer has been alone for nearly twenty years, other that the two hands who work for him. Pos had thought that was how it was going to stay for the rest of his life. That is, until he is enchanted by Coral, a young, red-haired girl new to the village. He sees her weekly when he brings crops to market, and it doesn't take him long to realize she seems to plan her trips to town to correspond with his. Within a very short time he asks her to marry him, and she accepts right away. Coral is a hard worker on the farm by day, a good cook and loving wife by night. Pos had never been wealthy, never saw the need, but he now realizes he has all the riches any man could want. Coral has her own horse, and loves to ride most afternoons. Pos was never a rider, merely the driver of his cart horses. Coral loves exploring what she calls Buttercup Hill. The flowers that grow there do look a bit like buttercups, and while she doesn't know exactly what they are, she knows what they are not. Whatever they are, she thinks they are magic in some way, even convincing Pos of that. Something he does in the middle of the night causes the flowers to spread everywhere on his farm. What they at first think might be a curse, turns out to be a blessing.

The last story is the best. It is contemporary, at least as of the 1994 publication date. I had a mistaken notion of what the title "A Knot in the Grain" meant. I was visualizing stalks of wheat or other grain tied in a knot. No, the knot is in the grain of a wooden beam in the attic room of Annabelle's new house. She is sixteen, it is the summer before her junior year of high school. Her father has just retired from his teaching position, and had already bought another house in upstate New York, where he plans to continue his writing career in earnest. Annabelle is sad to leave her friends, anxious about making new ones. They arrived at their new (old) house several days before the movers, but they had previously bought some cheap furniture to tide them over until their good beds and other furniture arrived. Annabelle had decided to stay in the attic room rather than what would be her bedroom. It is small, but cozy, and has a beautiful view of the orchards the previous owners had planted. This is a subtle fantasy story, with some things the reader could accept as Annabelle's misperception of things rather than true magic.

One day Annabelle takes her eyes off the orchard out the window, and studies the heavy wooden beams of the ceiling. She realizes there is a crack in a knot, the crack, extending across the beam to another knot. Only it's not a crack, it is actually a hinge. She sees another crack lower down, sees the small eye hooks. It takes her a while, but she eventually is able to pry the crack open, revealing a stairway into another small room. It is not a portal to another place, as so many of the fantasy stories she had read might have led her to expect. Just a small room, with a small desk, some book shelves, and a wooden box. When she opens the box and touches what is inside, she gets a small tingle, almost a shock, which frightens her. Not enough to not bring the box down into her room, but enough that she decides it belongs in the closet so as not to tempt her to open it again. She does open it later, and what she does with what is inside helps to avert something that threatened the bucolic nature of their small town, the orchards, and the beautiful meadows. Only Annabelle knows, or if she tells anyone else, that is further beyond where the story ends.

There is more to McKinley than just the surface fantasy trappings. She is able to get the reader into the minds and emotions of the characters. All of the main characters are girls, but that doesn't mean an old man like me can't appreciate what they face in their lives. Several stories start out with them as infants, but the climaxes are when they are either sixteen or seventeen, just on the threshold of womanhood. None are weak or subservient. They face life head-on, without flinching, without doubting their ability to overcome any obstacle. The first two or three stories are perhaps a bit clichéd, utilizing traditional fantasy motifs, but still unpredictable. It is unfortunate it is out of print, but used copies can be found. I know, I tracked one down through bookfinder.com. Or buy the ebook, for whatever device you use. I don't think you will be disappointed. The stories are as good, if not better, than any of the other McKinley titles I have read, most especially the last one. It won't be the last I'll read, since there are five more months for the year, and I'll get to one of her stand-alone novels next month. Just haven't decided which one it will be yet.


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Robin McKinley

May 1, 1994

Finalist for:

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