By Rachel MacFarland
The Judas Rose is the second book in the Native Tongue Trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin, a trilogy I am slowly plodding through this year, the 2020 of our discontent. If you’ll recall, the books have overlapping themes of language and feminism, two topics I can and will geek on beyond appropriateness (my oldest niece regularly asserts how inappropriate she finds me).
The central plot focuses on women in a distant future, bucking against their subjugation by inventing a women’s language, known as Laadan. Laadan is the work of the women of the Lines: the small, isolated group of highly intelligent linguist families, the only humans capable of “interfacing” (communicating) with alien species. Much of The Judas Rose is dedicated to the way the women of the Lines have managed to spread their subversive language to the women outside the Lines, on and off planet. Because yes, in The Judas Rose, Elgin expands her fictional universe from the limits of Earth out into space, to human colonies on other invented planets. And, as you may have guessed from the use of the word “Judas” in the title, there is the added contention of ultimate betrayal.
My criticism of this second book is much the same as the first—the plot, grandiose in scope, supersedes the nuance of character development. Furthermore, Elgin introduces all new characters in this book; I had some notion that carry-over characters would have a chance to grow in the second book, but the only character that makes the leap from book one to two is Nazareth Chornyak, a woman of the Lines. Granted, Nazareth is entirely likeable: she is the feisty, now-old woman who has masterminded the entire creation and spread of Laadan. And The Judas Rose introduces a new, very small element into the narrative: snippets of Nazareth’s personal journals. Starkly and openly beautiful, the journal excerpts are written in (what I imagine) is the closest thing to Elgin’s “real” voice. The journal entries are tiny islands of authenticity much welcome amidst the often-clunky stilt of Elgin’s plotwork.
Nazareth’s character aside, Elgin begins each new chapter almost methodically, repeatedly introducing and expanding on a new character. In this way, she incrementally pushes the boundaries of her narrative out, out, out, widening her world in much the same way you would stretch a mound of dough with a rolling pin; you expand the surface, but lose the depth. So while we have a lot of eyes and ears offering various angles of view on the growing plot, we lose a lot of the intricacies of character that would reveal the ramifications and justifications of that plot. A woman’s language slowly and subversively spreading throughout the known galaxy, unbeknownst to any of the men throughout that same galaxy? That is cool. Wicked cool. But there are so many holes between the ever-growing cast of new characters, that, like a true Wisconsinite, I feel swiss-cheesed, when what I want is a monster block of 20-year aged cheddar.
All criticism and cheese analogies aside, I have every intention of finishing this trilogy. Because the good thing about the damn holes is that they leave that much more room to form opinions and draw conclusions. Elgin created a massive thought experiment for women (and men!) to participate in, simply by reading this book. And from what I have gathered from some of the essays included with these newly released editions, Elgin had hopes that these books would lead to an actual women’s language, beyond the confines of fiction. The fact that she took aim and shot at that sizeable of a vision in the first place? Damn.
The very least I can do is stick with the story the whole way through.
Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.
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