Clare B. Dunkle

Background notes for Close Kin

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.

Winter trees in Bledesbach, Germany

"Farah's attitude to the Natives ... was the product of many centuries. The forces which had built it up had constructed great buildings in stone as well, but they had crumbled into dust a long time ago."
—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

One of the main themes of The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy is prejudice. But prejudice does not arise spontaneously. We learn it from adults when we are children, and we teach it to our own children when we become adults. Accordingly, Close Kin focuses on the phenomenon of passing prejudice on to the new generation, and the book is full of teens and young adults struggling with the legacy of bad, misguided, or nonexistent parenting.

The elvish Seylin, raised with the burden of his own parents' shame, decides to leave the goblin kingdom, which he feels has no place for him. The human Emily has also encountered prejudice from her goblin teacher, Ruby, and has fought that prejudice by acting out and exacting revenge. Emily eventually learns to see Ruby as a person with her own troubles, and Ruby has to face painful evidence of her own culture's past misdeeds before she will rethink her unfair judgment of humans.

Due to feelings of cultural superiority, Jane's father has never been a responsible parent to his motherless child, leaving Jane with nothing to hope for but a fairy-tale solution to her many problems. And Richard, the result of a casual liaison between a goblin trader and a human prostitute, has been exploited almost from birth. The only parental figure in Richard's life made a living exhibiting the boy as a freak. In his loneliness, Richard has taken care of two other abandoned children in order to have someone in his life who would call him a friend.

At the heart of the book is Sable's tiny band of orphan elves, all but crushed under the weight of their own ignorance. For the last one hundred years, not a single elf in this band has been raised by his or her biological mother, and the devastation this has brought about is almost complete: the band will not last another generation. These elves have grown up believing that life means a childbirth death for every woman and hard work and deprivation for every man. The psychological trauma of this painful existence reverberates through their shattered society. Sable rebels, and it is apparent that many of the men have rebelled as well, taking their own lives rather than living with the guilt of causing a loved one's death. In the last century, a handful of fathers, some human slaves, and the other children have carried out the task of raising the new members of the band.

This legacy of poor parenting has resulted in the elves' losing almost every shred of their original culture. The elvish language has disappeared as human slaves have taught the children English instead; one by one, spells have been forgotten or mispronounced so badly in the now-foreign elvish language that the magic no longer works. The loss of the women's magic has resulted in a mistaken belief that women can work no magic. The members of the band have learned no sympathy or courtesy that would make their relationships tolerable. Life is nothing but a grim struggle against starvation.

All that these elves have managed to retain of their glorious past is the racial pride and accompanying bigotry that they inherited from their distant ancestors. Sable's father has carefully taught the band to spurn human habits and human goods as the artifacts of an inferior race, and Thorn passes this prejudice on to Willow. Even more feared and hated are the goblins. Whether folktale or reality, they are the ultimate horror. As long as these elves believe in the threat of goblins, they can examine their miserable lifestyle and still find it a "superior" life.

Sable is thrown into confusion when she has to face the errors of her father's ideas. Like Kate, she feels tremendous guilt in abandoning those principles her father has taught her to hold dear. Ultimately, she decides to reject all of her father's teachings rather than try to reconcile any of it with her new life. In doing so, she adopts the goblins' own beliefs of their superiority and merely sows within herself the seeds of a new prejudice.

As a sideline, the book investigates different learning styles. Kate is highly literate and has excellent verbal skills; accustomed to doing well at things, she is upset to find that she has great difficulty with a task she must perform with her hands. She also has a talent which proves almost entirely useless to her, as some of our real-world talents do. Sable does not have good verbal skills and frequently finds herself unable to say exactly what she means, but she loves the precision and beauty of mathematics. Irina, dismissed by everyone as stupid because of her poor reasoning and verbal skills, in fact has a great artistic talent. It becomes clear that her many comments about appearance are not frivolity: they reflect this talent instead, in which she exhibits an astounding amount of creativity.

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