By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.
Because I live in a foreign country and because my children are being educated in a culture to which they do not belong by birth, I am very sensitive about the importance of cultural diversity. The Hollow Kingdom is a fantasy novel that helps teens explore in a nonthreatening way complex cultural-diversity questions. The book touches on issues of race (including racial stereotyping and ideas of beauty and worth), issues of culture (including culture shock and socialization), and prejudice, both racial and cultural.
Kate, for instance, seems broad minded, but she assumes that because Marak is ugly, his home must be ugly as well. She also assumes that because he is an outsider to her society, he will naturally be a barbarian. She is very upset to learn that she herself is not a member of the race that she has been raised to think of as "ideal," and she goes on to have trouble dealing with the goblin culture, which employs its own naming conventions, table manners, aesthetics, and taboos. Only when she returns to her society does she realize how much she values the goblins.
Marak, for his part, is highly educated, but he holds biased ideas about the other races and relates these prejudices without guilt. He obviously believes that he is part of a "superior" race. The goblins' prejudices have caused at least one member of their society shame and misery. Seylin, who looks like an elf child, has been teased and ostracized by his peers. He has no friend besides his King, who pities him for being what he is, until Emily, an outsider raised without his culture's prejudices, comes to live in the kingdom.
I wrote this trilogy because my mother read a great deal of history to me when I was a child, and one of the historical phenomena which fascinated and terrified me was the abduction of foreign or captured women and their integration into a new society. Every country on earth has participated in the forcible integration of women into a captor society at one time or another, a fact that must amaze and horrify us. When I was a child, I wondered how that could possibly work. Would the woman try to hold onto her own cultural identity, or would she adopt a new one? Drawing on the voluminous British folklore tradition of the abduction of human women, I tried to work that scenario out for myself in this book.
Does this book argue in favor of abduction? Of course not, no more than a book that describes battlefield behavior is arguing in favor of war. Moreover, the magical problem my goblins face is so unique that it has no human counterpart. And yet, for reasons ranging from logical to heinous, our own culture has repeatedly taken innocent foreign women captive and held them or exploited them for our society's benefit. In the 1800's, we did this to African women and native American women. Last century, we interned Japanese American women during World War II. And right this minute, although the majority of our Middle Eastern captives are men, a few of them are women. So, clearly, we Americans have some things to think through in terms of the ethical treatment of foreign women. If we take the time to examine these issues honestly in a complicated fictional setting, that's a useful step toward getting them right in real life.
To that end, if my trilogy forces readers towards new thoughts about race and identity, as well as reasonable interaction between "us" and "them," then I will be very happy.