The Beginning Place
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by Tor Teen
240 pages, 2005
Finding Peace of Heart
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Reading Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the real pleasures in life. It's true that I have an odd... well, not a complaint, exactly, but I have to read nearly everything that she writes twice. I read the first time to get the story, the pleasure of the narrative and the ideas; the second time to savor the words. I don't know of another writer whose way with language pleases -- no, enchants -- me more.
Another thing to know about Le Guin is that when she writes fiction for teenagers, she writes with adult language and adult themes. She never seems to write down for any reason. In reading The Beginning Place, while the focus was two young adults, I never got the sense that the book was too young for me, a woman in her 50s. I never felt "oh it's going to be so embarrassing if someone finds me reading this kid's book." But since I never read Le Guin's young adult books when I was a young adult, I hope I can be forgiven for wading in with an opinion now.
The Beginning Place first appeared in 1980. It's a fantasy tale, it's a young person growing up story, it's a coming of age tale, it's a lot of things. Le Guin doesn't shy away from adult subjects nor, almost more impressive, does she shy away from subtlety.
Hugh Rogers lives with his mother. He's unhappy but not for super-obvious reasons. Le Guin doesn't depict a woman here who's exactly abusive, violent, evil. Nothing that obvious. But she's a miserable human being and she wants to be sure to spread her misery to her son. It's a very deft portrayal, and a sneaky one. She wants her son at home every night, but she goes out. When he's there, she's nasty, whiny, complaining, but when he tells her he's going away, just for a few days, she doesn't want to be called "mother" anymore. Hugh could live by himself, but his sense of duty causes him to stay, locked in a house with this harridan of a woman, for whom he feels if not love, a sense of responsibility.
Irene, a young woman who lives in the same town, has discovered an odd place and Hugh comes across it by accident. They're both running from misery and together they find a curious land, where time is much slower than in the world they know (though this is not fairie land of any sort). It's not a modern place but the sort of timeless village we've encountered in other works by Le Guin; the people raise sheep and card wool, brew beer and make their own bread, travel to the marketplaces and live quiet lives. But the roads are closing to them. And there is abject fear that keeps them from going out. Irene and Hugh seem to have some purpose here.
So read The Beginning Place for this beautiful, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, story about two people fighting their demons and fighting for others. Then go back because you simply shouldn't miss the beauty of this author's writing. Early on, Le Guin writes of Hugh putting his hand in a stream, "then he put his hand into the water and felt the musculature of the currents press against his palm." Oh wow. And when an author offers you a phrase like "peace of heart" take it and think about it. And cherish one of our finest writers. | April 2005
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.