Once Upon a Time challenge. After seeing Kailana and Carl write about their shared read of Spirits in the Wires last week, I wanted to read it, but don't own it and it wasn't in Chapters when I looked. I had Muse and Reverie put aside for this challenge, but it's a collection of short stories, and I wanted a novel to sink my teeth into and be absorbed by. So, I looked for something by him on my shelf, and thought, ok, I'll try Forests of the Heart. I'm not sure why I was resisting it, I think it was because it opens in the desert, which is not the place I associate with Charles' writing. This time, it was magic. I really enjoyed the Spanish and Mexican flavours of Bettina San Miguel and her family, and especially the myths that are touched on in this book. Mostly, the stories of being a curandera, a healer, and shapeshifting. Los cadejos were my favourite, the dancing half goat, half dog in rainbow colours that are the oldest dogs in Bettina's culture, laughing dogs that have such joy - clown spirit dogs, almost. They were delightful and funny.
Forests of the Heart does take place in Newford, the city de Lint invented where his fantasy for the most part takes place. Newford is a bustling city with room for ghosts, spirits, myths, and legends to go walking in the shadowy places of the city, as well as in the parks, and in this book, in the bars and in an artist's retreat called Kellygnow. Forests of the Heart is a blend of three different cultures - difficult to to do two, almost impossible to do three, though it works well in Forests of the Heart. It works because de Lint writes about mystery and spirit as if at the same level, it moves in the same way - that a healer is the same no matter what culture one comes from, that spirits come to us in the same way no matter where we come from, and the way that spirits talk to us and that we have to be careful what we say to them, is the same. Even some of the way the myths work - the basic seed - is the same, as in only some people can see into the spirit world, only some people are artists, though as one character says, everyone carries a bit of mystery in them. This is how the aboriginal elders, the Creek sisters, are able to recognize the latent power in Ellie, a sculptor, who is not interested in anything but art, and in Bettina, whom they meet for the first time in the spirit world. Bettina is not able to see it in others yet, though it comes to her as she gets more comfortable with her power. This bridging of cultures through seeing the links in myth and magic, through the basic way that people approach spiritual power and medicine, is wise and profound in de Lint's writing as a whole, as well as Forests in the Heart in particular. Mexican, Aboriginal, Irish/Gaelic - the book blends the three cultures, and it works. If you want a glimpse of what it is like to walk between the worlds in the timeless place where the world began, then de Lint's books - and Forests of the Heart - are a wonderful place to visit.
On to the book itself: Bettina finds herself in Kellygnow, unsure of what she is doing so far north from her desert, except that she was called there after she could not get over the disappearance of her grandmother. Her grandmother, her abuela, teaches her everything Bettina knows about being a curandera which has as its source a spiritual power and gift that runs in their family. There is also another gift, that Bettina discovers in the book, a shapeshifting skill that I wish we could have gotten to learn a little more about.
Bettina is one central character - much of the book is from her point of view, a grounded healing point of view that centers the book in plain speaking from the heart. This kind of wisdom lets the fantastical story unfold as completely believable - that there is a mask, that other characters want Ellie, with her gift of sculpting, to make, to bring back a myth to life. They think they can control the myth. At the same time, we have Ellie herself, who is a white girl who had a normal upbringing, who wants to help others when she is not sculpting, and rides around in a van helping the homeless at night. She works with Tommy Raven, a recovering alcoholic aboriginal man who is nephew to the Creek sisters on the Kickaha reserve just outside Newford. Like all skilled storytellers, everything is connected, in Forests of the Heart.
Donal and Miki are the two siblings at the center of the book for the Newford side, along with Hunter, the owner of a record store in Newford. You knew there would be music in this book, right? There always is. I've always wished I could play an instrument the way de Lint's characters do. They have such a fabulous time making their music, playing, dancing and singing to folk and celtic music, and musical names are dropped all the way through this book. I always come away with thinking I have to know a lot more about fiddling and celtic music before I dare to write a celtic fantasy! and that there is whole lot of music out there, music and groups, that I have never heard of.
Forests of the Heart is also about using your creative gifts properly. Miki is afraid to reach out for her touring life she wants to do, to bring her music to a wider audience. Bettina discovers that she needs to heal herself before she can claim her real power, and fill the empty space inside her. It's what happens to Donal that makes the darkness in this book: Donal never is able to let go of his melancholy even as an artist, and this gloom hides a darkness in his spirit that eventually eats away at him until almost nothing good is left. No one understands what is happening,not until it is too late. It is he who works with the Gentry, and starts the mischief that quickly turns dark and nasty. The Gentry are the homeless spirits who cause much of the problems in this book. This is a dark fantasy, and there is some violence and death. The Green Man, when he is finally brought to life, is nothing like what any of us would imagine, tainted because Donal's reasons for summoning him are for the wrong reasons - for hatred, revenge, power. The way that the Green Man is finally defeated is using a combination of all the energies and power of all the three cultures combined, through Aunt Nancy, Bettina and Ellie.
And may I just say here, that speaking as someone who's family is not from here, but from away, that it is really good to read a story that deals with what happens when myths and spirits from other lands meet up with the native spirits here. The Gentry can't settle because the manitou, the original aboriginal spirits who guard the land here, are already here and won't let them in. The manitou are facing their own problems, with the growing city of Newford cutting into the virgin land of the forests.
Everyone is lost, in Forests of the Heart. It's a book about finding your home. Both Aunt Nancy of the Creek girls, and Bettina of the Mexican people, discover that they share a common way of saying, the secret place in your heart that you go to, that is your home. It's a lovely way of saying it,' in the heart of my home.' Because they are connected to power and spirit and are powerful medicine women, they find their home of their heart in that spirit world they cross over into. And each is different unto the person, which also shapes the cross-over place. (We return to this world in The Onion Girl and Widdershins, later books.) Donal and Miki are lost, orphans except for each other. Bettina is far from everyone she loves, Hunter has just broken up with someone, and long ago, Donal and Ellie dated. Everything connects.....
I really enjoyed Forests of the Heart. When Bettina says to the corderjos near the end, that she is welcoming them into the forest of her heart, I cried. She had struggled so hard to heal herself. that was a beautiful moment in the book. I cried because I've been trying to answer what is my home, where is it, and who do I let into it? so the themes of this fantasy really struck a chord in me.
I highly recommend this fantasy. I read it for the myth section of Carl's Challenge. It is deep and funny and bittersweet and true, and there is room for love and magic, too. Plus an ice storm, and an artist's colony that I'd love to go to! I've always wanted to visit Newford, I love how de Lint is blending fantasy and myth and magic with city living. 5/5