The Motherlines Series Analysis
Suzy McKee Charnas presents a number of challenging and even shocking details, including the horrific treatment of women in the Holdfast, reproduction through mating with horses, and the women’s extreme violence upon their return to the Holdfast. Seen as an exaggeration of the results of conditions in current society, the events in the novels work together to make a powerful political statement. The three novels, which are Charnas’ first, second, and eighth, make their impact most forcefully when read together in sequence.
The novels critique the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the environment as well as attitudes toward race, sex, and, especially, gender. Following the Wasting, an environmental disaster caused by greed, no animals and few plants remain in the Holdfast, the land occupied by men. Horses and sharu, small but vicious creatures, are the only animals still living in the Grasslands. In the Holdfast, racism and sexism have been taken to their extremes. The men have killed all the “unmen” except some fems, their name for the white women they have enslaved. Besides women, the unmen included all nonwhite men. The novels question condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural by portraying a reverse position: Men, fems, and Riding Women consider enjoying sexual activity with a member of the opposite sex perverse.
The novels’ strongest message is feminist. Life for fems in the Holdfast is miserable. As children they are raised in “kit pits,” literally pits dug in the ground where only the strongest survive. Those fems who survive to adulthood are forced into hard labor or into life as “pets” to men. Their diet consists of curdcake, a mixture of breast milk and the corpses of dead fems. Men rape and kill them at will.
Most fems are not taught to speak, although some, such as Alldera, do learn. The men even cut out many fems’ tongues. Speaking fems use a special form of pronunciation called soft speech, which most men cannot understand. They use “news songs” to pass information to fems in other cities, and their songs often include subversive and derogatory commentary about men. Alldera’s strong verbal skills enable her to lead her people to conquer the Holdfast. Thus, the novels dramatize one of the great paradoxes of feminist thought: Although language is patriarchal—in this fictional case, primarily limited to use by males—it is also a source of great power for women.
The comparatively utopian society of the Riding Women depicted in Motherlines contrasts with the society of the Holdfast. The Riding Women make decisions by committee and live in harmony with nature. Various races co-exist peacefully, and family units are formed at will. This second novel of the trilogy is widely discussed in the context of science-fiction novels written or published at the height of the women’s movement that question the fairness of contemporary gender and family roles. Other novels in this group include Joanna Russ’s The Female Man
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