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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Balyet is told with a small cast of characters. The two main human actors are fourteen-year-old Jo and Mrs. Willet, a "Clever Woman" of aboriginal heritage, who was Jo's beloved sitter when the girl was younger. Stowing away in "Granny" Willet's car as the old woman sets out to tend the sites of ancestral magic, Jo churns with a mixture of emotions. Her simple act of hiding springs from several motives. Jo would never admit to uneasiness at being left on her own while her mother goes on a business trip. She is at that awkward age where one both longs for and resents adult protection. But she hates to be cooped up in the house while Mrs. Willet goes out in the country to do adventurous deeds. And Jo knows that her friend Terry is planning an outing to the same area. What fun it would be to surprise him!

Mrs. Willet also has mixed emotions when she discovers Jo in the back seat of her car. Secretly a little flattered when Jo tells her how special she has been in the girl's life, she still would rather do her ritual tasks without being responsible for a high-spirited, bored teenager.

The love, willfulness, and resentment between these two, revealed in this first scene, permeate events throughout the story. Jo is spurred into more daring deeds by her annoyance at Mrs. Willet's over-protectiveness. The old woman, knowing no way to make the uncanny dangers in the hills understandable to the girl, uses flimsy excuses and tricks to keep her from wandering. Jo can easily see through them, and decides that Granny is just simpleminded and stubborn.

Their mutual lack of understanding forms a strong motif of youth and age which informs the book. It is a complex exploration, more subtle than the mere youth versus age conflict between Jo and Granny. In her care for the ancient booliah stones and sacred sites, Mrs. Willet shows the elders' responsibility for maintaining tradition. In her plea for Balyet's release—"This is another time . . ."—she recognizes the need for changing as the world changes.

For her part, Jo fights mightily against Granny's hard words and her acceptance of an even harder law. Yet when the old woman's warning proves right, and Balyet's call brings up the dark, it is Granny Willet to whom Jo calls. And Granny Willet answers, for her hard words masked not only her helplessness but her love for the young woman. And—as Granny herself may not have realized before—they masked compassion for the spirit-woman Balyet also.

Balyet is an important character. In an author's note, Wrightson says that the book is Balyet's story, not Jo's or Mrs. Willet's. Some readers may disagree. Young readers are most likely to identify with Jo. In a standard analysis of the story as fantasy, Jo would surely be the protagonist, responding with wariness and fascination to a paranormal being. But on a thematic level Balyet is primary. Balyet makes the youth versus age theme even more complex. She drifts and beckons in the story as a girlish spirit, exiled from normal life in punishment for the innocent passions of youth. Yet she has endured a thousand years in her spirit form, wasting away to a mere streak of mist. All her people have disappeared in the intervening years. She longs for a death she cannot attain. Perhaps the implication here is that, being cut off from the experiences of normal life, the opportunity to grow into moral responsibility is lost to her too. Her playful impulses are deadly, and she has gained no wisdom from her years on earth.

Balyet's predicament presents another theme as well. According to the ancient legend Mrs. Willet recounts, Balyet was condemned to her shadowy existence for violating a taboo. She fell in love with two young men, blood brothers. The blood-brother relationship was especially sacred because it helped insure peace between different tribes. Balyet was not supposed to flirt with either...

(The entire section is 1,007 words.)