In the second chapter of Briar’s Book, this gets too real too quickly. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Circle of Magic.
Trigger Warning: For talk of disease, poverty, and classism.
WELL, SOME OF THE THINGS I WROTE ABOUT IN THE LAST REVIEW ARE EVEN MORE PERTINENT NOW. LORD.
I mean, I wasn’t surprised that the disease that Flick had was probably contagious, and yet I did not anticipate the inevitable: everyone who came into contact with her would have to be quarantined. But this is made worse by Niko’s realization that the glimpse he had of a possible future in Emelan is probably about to come true. An epidemic, y’all. I mean, I don’t expect Flick to be the only one to be sick here, you know? And with the knowledge of Niko’s vision, I feel like I have to be a bit cynical here. This has the potential for a disaster, y’all, and if it breaks out on a larger scale… well, let’s address that when we get to that point.
For now, Pierce uses the text to build dread. We see how Briar covers his own fear with cruel humor because it’s easier for him to rely on this than to show his true feelings to Tris and Sandry. (Though Sandry, being who she is, sees right through it.) When Rosethorn, Niko, and Lark all react to the news with fear in their expressions, we feel EVEN WORSE. It’s a clever way to create suspense by directing our own emotional reaction to the text. Like the children of Discipline, we understand how severe something is by seeing how the adults react. And this is going to be truly terrible, isn’t it?
I did get some joy out of seeing how Pierce handle quarantine procedure with the Emelan world. Some of it is magical, but a lot of it is just practicality. From the tents covering sewer entrances to the physical placement of the quarantine rooms within Urda’s House, I WAS SO FASCINATED BY ALL OF THIS. It helps me understand magic within Emelan, first of all. I think it would have been easy for Pierce to just create a million different magical devices and solutions, but Emelan doesn’t work that way. Magic is an integral part of this universe, but it is not so all-encompassing that there’s nothing else that these people need to do to stop a possible epidemic from breaking out. There are spells to help, but people need to be trained to understand how to deal with a proper quarantine.
Unfortunately for Rosethorn, this is not an ideal situation aside from the possible exposure to whatever Flick has. Normally, she’d work with Dedicate Crane (THE FANFIC I WROTE ABOUT THEM FOR HOLIDAY CARDS IS NEARLY CANON, I’M SO EXCITED) to determine the actual illness and how to combat it, but now she’s stuck taking care of Flick. Which she does well, mind you! But it’s clear from her snappy argument with Niko that she’s furious about this predicament. My god, y’all, even the argument contributes to the suspense of this book. If Rosethorn’s emotions are raw enough to cause her to spat with Niko in the SECOND CHAPTER, then this cannot get better.
I appreciate that as uncomfortable as this is, Pierce does not let the classism here go unchecked. Each of these characters is flawed, and she’s never been reluctant to address that. One of Tris’s problems is that she is quick to judge people who don’t meet her own standards, even if those standards are rooted in oppressive elements in Emelan society. We’ve seen her anti-Trader bias before, which was thoroughly dismantled in the last book, and this time, Pierce guides us through the horrible things Tris thinks about the poor:
Briar is in the sewers! thought Tris to herself, her skin prickling. Only Niko’s bony hand kept her in place. Briar and Rosethorn and street rats, no better than animals themselves, in the worst kind of filth: the thought made her stomach roll. She hoped – she prayed – that Briar and Rosethorn would burn their clothes before they came home.
Now, one of the great things about reading Tamora Pierce’s books is that I don’t have to do that thing I do with many other authors or creators: I don’t have to worry that shit like this will go unaddressed. On the whole, she’s been incredible about addressing issues like this with subtlety or, in this case, with a thoughtful sledgehammer. So I wondered how she’d do this because Tris’s thoughts were… well, gross. Really gross. It’s important to note how selfish they are, too. After finding out that Briar and Rosethorn are helping someone who LITERALLY LIVES IN THE SEWERS, her only thought revolves around whether or not they’ll clean up enough for her tastes.
It’s disgusting, and it’s disgustingly common. I have a lot of quiet joy in situations where I can listen to people whine and complain and rip on the homeless, only to reveal that I’ve been homeless multiple times. It is one of the ways I deal with the trauma of it, and it never gets old. It’s so fun to make people face the very thing they’re being a bigoted jerk about! Now, there are clearly different degrees to this, and it’s important to note that for most of my life, I have had a roof over my head in some sense. But my homelessness – there were two major periods of it – was degrading and traumatizing. And I met quite a few other people who were homeless, and I very quickly realized that most people had no clue what the experience was like or what kind of people were homeless in America. So to challenge ideas of homelessness was something I became very invested in. It’s very easy to ascribe laziness and addiction and filth to those who live in poverty, and it’s not so easy to develop empathy, or to understand how these stereotypes are formed and become so pervasive. And in Tris’s case, she subscribed to practically every negative image or pejorative phrase associated with the poor. Why question it? Even worse, because Tris has experienced a lot of trauma and oppression, she is unable to see how she can uphold harmful ideas along another axis.
So she says something even worse:
Tris thrust herself away from the table so hard that she knocked over the bench on which she sat. Struggling to pick it up, she cried, “It’s their own fault! What were they doing mucking about the Mire anyway? Everyone knows the poor breed disease!”
It’s a vicious form of victim blaming: ignore the system that put these people in that kind of circumstance, and then blame those very people for the existence of the system you just ignored. Lark calmly tears this logic to shreds with a single question:
“If they could afford decent places to live, and expensive health spells, they would not be poor, then, would they?” asked Lark.
YOU TELL ‘EM, LARK.
“But you must not let distress make you cruel. Rosethorn is there because it is the way of the Circle to help all, not just those who can pay. Briar went there because that is the soil in which he grew.”
YOU SEE THAT SUBTLE WAY THAT LARK REMINDS TRIS THAT BRIAR IS THE SAME KIND OF PERSON TRIS IS TALKING ABOUT? Look, I tire of having to do this whole humanization thing within the activism I do because some days, it seems so harmful to have to prove to people that you are a person worthy of respect and happiness. But I recognize that this is a way that people suddenly realize their complicity in oppressive systems! So Lark has to gently point out that if Tris is going to blame the poor, then she better be ready to blame Briar along with them.
“She didn’t mean it,” offered Sandry, hoping to make peace.
“Whether she did or not is beside the point.”
THE HEAVENS HAVE OPENED AND THE ANGELS HAVE SUNG TO US: STOP APOLOGIZING BY SAYING YOU DIDN’T MEAN TO HURT SOMEONE. I think that in some contexts, intent is a meaningful thing! It generally isn’t within an apology, though, because it deflects responsibility.
“No one asks to live in squalor, Tris. It is just that squalor is all that is left to them by those with money.” Lark stood, her shoulders drooping. “When I got the wheezes, what the healers call asthma, I couldn’t work as a tumbler anymore. The only place I could afford to live was the Mire.”
And there it is. Lark makes a point of blaming the people who are responsible for poverty existing: the greedy people who have everything and are so afraid of losing it that they ensure that others never get a part of it. That’s done through gentrification. Development. The support of classist, racist police forces. Redlining. Discriminatory housing policies. Supporting politicians who hate the poor. The rich do shit like this for a reason. And if Tris still didn’t understand this, Lark made sure to implicate herself within all of this. If Tris is going to criticize those in the Mire, then she’s going to blame Lark’s asthma, too. She can’t pick and choose; she either commits to this or she abandons it.
So if you want to demonize the homeless, be prepared to blame me for running away from a homophobic, abusive household. Be prepared to blame me for having racist managers who fired me and forced me to drop out of college and move into the streets and turn to sex work to stay alive. Be prepared to include me in your hatred, or don’t do it at all.
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