The Bone Flute by Patricia Bow

An outline of treetops formed through the walls of the house. The fire in the windows turned pale yellow, then green, then blue, a watery shadow printed on the trees. And then the house, with its brass, its ivy, and its fiery windows, melted into the night.

Camrose has inherited responsibility for an ancient bone flute, an object of quest for two time-wandering rivals, one of them lord of the Otherworld. With the help of her friend Mark and the not-quite-human Miranda, Camrose must brave fire and worse in her attempt to claim the flute and restore it to its rightful owner.

When I picked this book up at the library my immediate reaction was that this looked like exactly the sort of book I would have read and loved in elementary school. Cover and story have that comfortably timeless, old-timey feel that I associate with books from my elementary school library. The discovery that The Bone Flute was published in 2004 came as a surprise. (It was nice to see that I hadn’t somehow missed it entirely in my omnivorous childhood reading.)

Which aforementioned reading included a book or two with a very similar set up to this one: a young protagonist (Camrose is 12); an object of great power of which the protagonist is the guardian; two immortal rivals with otherworldly abilities; the choice.

The Bone Flute leaves the others in the dust.

The story itself is tidily understated. Set in Lynx Landing, Ontario, on the opposite side of the Ottawa River from the hills of Quebec, the physical location is a prominent presence with a distinctive feel of a small Canadian town near larger cities, carved out of and still near the wilds, with that nestled-in sense of a lazy, lively town.

Camrose and Mark, like the town, are in the middle of the natural changes of growing up: Camrose is acutely aware that what used to be the trio of herself, Mark, and Nadia has been whittled to a duo with the arrival of Krystal. A more immediate annoyance is the authority of Camrose’s elder sister, Bronwyn, while their father is in Halifax for a conference.

A strong sense of atmosphere, of place, and of (background but very present) relationship webs is matched by the quiet, vibrant feminism that sets this story apart from similar narratives. This is not only Camrose’s story, but Gilda’s and Rhianna’s.

The friendship between Camrose and Mark is satisfying, and so is the ending.

My only complaint is that there isn’t a lot of diversity; just Nadia, who appears in the beginning and never again. The cast is very small, however – for the most part, just Camrose, Mark, Miranda (who isn’t human), and the two rivals. Who aren’t entirely human, either. And that is all I will say for fear of spoilers. However! If you’ve read The Bone Flute, want to talk? More thoughts below the break.

(Random trivia: Patricia Bow was Erin Bow’s mother-in-law, and died January 7, 2017.)

The Wyrde exchanged looks again. “You cannot go back,” said the second sister.

“Then, let me go forward!”

“Have you the courage?” asked the first.

She knotted her hands together. “I have.” (p. 128)

This is the EXTREMELY SPOILERY SECTION. You’ve been warned.

Can we talk about how this story undermines and explodes the whole woman-as-prize, woman-stolen-away, woman-as-voiceless theme literature has going on?

  • The Wyrde are much like the fairies 17th century French women writers created in their fairy tales as an expression of their desire for more power in their personal and political lives and as an exploration of what the world might look like if women had real authority. The Wyrde, like the fairies, don’t intervene (they can’t), but they set quests and conditions that will allow mortal protagonists to grow.
  • Both rivals, Diarmid the bard and Gwyn son of the lord of the Otherworld, claim Rhianna as theirs. Both men use extremely possessive language when speaking of her. Both of them believe that she belongs to him; they dispute the other’s claim only instead of questioning the whole notion of possessing, as if Rhianna is a belonging and not a person.
  • The Wyrde seem to give Diarmid a chance to learn, to become a good man. His reward for doing so is not, however, Rhianna, but rest. One wonders what might have happened if Diarmid had grown into someone worthwhile. Would he have given up the quest? Would he have continued, but instead of pleading his case, asked the guardian to return the flute to Rhianna? In any case, he doesn’t; he changes, but not enough.
  • Rhianna is turned into a hound and keeps Gwyn/Terence’s company for years, and yet, as the Wyrde point out, he never recognizes her. In other words, he never truly looks at her; he does not know Rhianna.
  • When Camrose asks the flute for the beginning of the story – implicitly, the whole story – she is transported to see the beginning of events from Rhianna’s perspective.
  • Can we pause and point out that neither Diarmid nor Gwyn (or Terence, as he calls himself for most of the story) asks Rhianna’s opinion? They attempt to decide for her, completely overriding her objections and wishes.
    • Diarmid forbids her to play her instruments again, as he doesn’t want a wife whose skill eclipses his. He wants to marry her because she is famously beautiful. Diarmid is violent and abusive: he knocks a servant to the ground; he threatens Rhianna twice in their very first conversation. He is the very image of an abusive man.
    • Gwyn initially appears in the guise of Rhianna’s rescuer. But he lies to her, foils her attempt at escaping Diarmid in order to abduct her himself; and bespells her so that she crosses to his realm. Rhianna is afraid of him, too, just less afraid, initially, than she is of Diarmid. For all that we never see him hit her, he is no better, just another jailer who sees Rhianna as a possession.
  • Neither man learns. For about a thousand years both of them fight over the flute not because they love Rhianna, but because they cannot bear to lose face: they want to own her, and they want to defeat the other. Both Diarmid and Gwyn/Terence are abusers; though they are abusive in different ways they are still both abusive and therefore both entirely the wrong choice. There is no “oh, well, he doesn’t hit her, so he’s the better choice” if he keeps kidnaps, imprisons, and lies to her. Abuse is abuse is abuse is evil. The story is a solid, subtle introduction to recognizing different forms of abuse in a sensitive-child-friendly, story-and-characters first way.
  • The Keepers don’t learn, either. When a Keeper turns twelve, she or he will come into possession of the bone flute and must choose who deserves it. So far, none of them have chosen; consequently, great disaster befalls them. Gilda’s house and family burn down; in another case, a ship sinks, in another a town is destroyed. Not choosing is not an option in this game. I think the penalty for not choosing is so harsh because the consequences are so cruel to the true owner of the flute. The Keepers suffer, one after another, because none of them have sufficient courage, imagination, or true sight (or, feminism) to see beyond the seeming rules of the game. Each Keeper in turn cannot choose between the rivals; none of them, until Camrose, pursue the logical consequence: if both are wrong, then there must be a third option that has not been considered. Or perhaps all previous Keepers fail because they listen only to each rival’s story, rather than going to the original source.
  • There’s also a jab at capitalism:

They called it the Old Mill Mall now. Camrose liked to come here, when she could afford it. It wasn’t a good place if you had no money. They expected you to buy things, not just sit and talk with your friends. (p. 74)

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