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: 10/28/2021 1:38:18 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.

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 pilgrimage 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. Dunlap said she likes using female narrators because so much history is told from the male standpoint.

“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.

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.

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


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