My Mother and Ursula Le Guin
As far as I can tell, my mother has only read one fantasy novel and it was by Ursula Le Guin.
My mother was an odd figure in the small, conservative desert town I grew up in. She came from a poor Midwestern family, one of many children that didn’t receive the care or love she deserved from a mother with a slew of rotating husbands. In her late teens, she took a job on the racetrack caring for horses, a passion she genuinely adored, and eventually found herself in California in the late 70s. She met my father, got pregnant with me and then settled down to raise a family.
My mother was not the type of feminist often presented in the media. There was no lofty ideological rhetoric or foundational texts for her to call upon; she had not attended college and books were not a common commodity in her home growing up. There were likely scores of women just like her all over the country, ladies who didn’t need academic theory to recognize that women were given a raw deal in our society. Nonetheless, she did stand out among the small set of adults in my childhood.
Long before gender fluidity was discussed seriously in middle-class America, she intended to raise her sons in a different environment than the one she experienced. She put traditional “girl” toys in my room to compliment the trucks and action figures given to my brother and I by relatives and friends. She wanted her sons to play with what they wished and not be restricted to activities deemed gender appropriate by our community. She was not angry when at age four, I brought the “girl” toys to a neighbor’s house and said, “I don’t want these. You can have them.” I made an innocent choice, but it was my choice.
We were not allowed to have any war-like toys in our home. No GI Joes or plastic guns were present, as my mother hoped to raise her boys in an environment that did not encourage violence and physical conflict as the norm. Nevertheless, she would laugh as my brothers and I fashioned crossbows and bazookas out of branches and twigs in the backyard. Maybe it was genetic or demonstrated just how far cultural norms extended into young boys, but she never stopped us from playing the way we wished.
When she decided to go to college, I was 7 years old and had two younger brothers in tow. Now that I have two children of my own under the age of 5, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to complete any kind of formal education with a handful of rugrats to care for.
While she intended to earn a practical degree and get a decent middle-class job, college did provide her the opportunity to read and create in ways she hadn’t before. By her own admission, she was never an avid reader, but she had read A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin. When given the opportunity to write her own short story for her Lit 101 class, she used Ursula’s opus as a springboard to create her own fictional world. The story involved a girl on a quest for magic stones, encountering a motley crew of creatures and characters along the way. It may not have been worthy of ascending to the fantasy pantheon, but she was proud of it. I don’t know what grade she received for the work and it didn’t matter.
There were reasons my mother could identify with Ged, the protagonist in the Earthsea Cycle. My mother’s lineage was unclear and she was expected to do little with her future by adults in her orbit. She too went on an adventure that took her far from home and became the only one of her siblings to earn a college degree. She was opposed to violence and appreciated the cooperative theme present in the novels.
Yet, the reason she loved A Wizard of Earthsea was because Ursula Le Guin wrote them; a strong woman, who braved a male-dominated field to construct some of its best modern works. My mother never read Angela Davis or Gloria Steinem, but she did have a fantasy novel that presented the way forward for a young woman in her place and time.
I hope to provide a different childhood for my girls than my mother received, and with the growth of the #metoo movement, I anticipate their working and social realities will be healthier than the one my mother experienced. I hope my daughters won’t need Earthsea the way my mother did, but they will surely be on the shelf to inspire them on their own journeys.