By Rachel MacFarland
So I finished it, the feminist tome by Suzette Haden Elgin (SHE) consisting of three books: Native Tongue, Judas Rose, and Earthsong. Earthsong, the final book in the trilogy, was my favorite, truly, measured by landslide margins; it felt like the payoff of the three-book marathon, the victory lap, when you can no longer feel your legs. The first two books took diligent, committed effort, not because the premise wasn’t absolutely intriguing, but because her writing is so ploddingly methodical. I had to keep reminding myself that Elgin is a studied, hardcore linguist—more like a language astrophysicist than a raving, lunatic novelist. There is METHOD (so. much. method.) behind the heavy curtains of her narrative. Sometimes it was like reading the blunted plotline of a Steven Seagal movie crossed with a daytime soap opera, circa 1986. Underneath that though, I knew, just knew, that it was all mere overlay to some brilliant ancient lady codex that could indeed be cracked, if I could only commit to the painstaking work of a close read.
But damn; Elgin, like Seagal, can hit like a brick.
I am admitting this, now, only because Earthsong was such a joy to read. And, as would be the case with any brilliant ancient lady codex, I am certain I missed certain nuanced aspects by miles. Miles. I’m no linguist, nor did I take a single linguistics class, ever; I fall much closer to the raving lunatic novelist side of the language-study spectrum. But one of the beautiful things about Earthsong is how art and life intertwine.
Elgin wrote this series over a span of ten years, from 1984 to 1994; she had time to see how the first two books hit the public, and had no choice but to continue and finish her “thought experiment” with the knowledge that Laadan, her invented women’s language that she hoped women would run with and put into actual use, had, in most respects, failed. The language did not catch on; it stayed within the confines of her novels. So Earthsong, which leaps ahead several hundred years from the previous two books, contains a similar failure—Laadan did not catch on in the way the women of the Lines originally conceived it. But the notion of failure often masks a true shift in the undercurrent, and Earthsong delivers several wild shifts that make room for Laadan’s “failure” to morph into something else. Evolution, baby.
At the beginning of the novel, Elgin follows through on what she hinted at in Judas Rose—the aliens, present on Earth for years and years, decide to up and leave, all of them, simultaneously, without warning. On the very same day, Nazareth Chornyak, our heroine from the first two novels, drops dead in a flower garden. All this leave-taking throws the sturdy structure of the Lines into bereft chaos; the men, anyway. The women, as always, are perfectly rational (all hail that blunt-brick Elgin feminism). The implication of the aliens’ disappearance is that humans are too deeply and inherently violent to warrant their involvement on Earth any longer. The hope is that if humans can get their shit together—end violence—then maybe the aliens will return. But who has the balls to take a stab at ending human violence?
A woman of the Lines, of course. Delina Chornyak, who also happens to be Nazareth’s great granddaughter. And don’t discount Nazareth herself, just because she died. Death is no limit for a woman linguist, not according to Elgin; death is only a shift in translation. Nazareth tells Delina that to end violence, she should put her focus on ending hunger. So Delina does, stumbling through all the previous failed attempts to end hunger before coming across a very old concept: Gregorian monks lived on an almost foodless diet by spending much of their lives in meditative chant. So with that, the women of the Lines begin to experiment with substituting music for food, again playing with the evolution of what makes a human human, much like their work in evolving womanhood by developing a language specifically for women.
Everything I just said is revealed quite early in this final book; from that diving board, Elgin springs all over the known universe of her own devising. I won’t spoil any further, because if none of this strikes you as some seriously wacky genius theorizing, well, these books are not for you, and the loss is yours. But if it does strike you, then I recommend you buckle in and take this ride.
Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.
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