The Woman Who Lives in the Earth

Overview

A timeless story that will change your way of seeing.

Resonant and poetic in its simplicity, this is the story of a young girl who uses the hidden forms and patterns of the natural world to transform herself as well as her enemies.

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Overview

A timeless story that will change your way of seeing.

Resonant and poetic in its simplicity, this is the story of a young girl who uses the hidden forms and patterns of the natural world to transform herself as well as her enemies.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

William Kittredge
Beautiful and profound, both fantastical and utterly real. Swain Wolfe has given us a truly useful story, a moral fable for these and all times.
VOYA - Karen Herc
When Sarah's valley experiences a terrible drought, the young girl begins a quest for rainfall. As the only person left who wants to understand the natural world, it falls to Sarah to save it. The people of Sarah's valley worship and fear animals but have lost most of their contact with them. As the people become more afraid and angry because of the drought, they lose their humanity and take on animal characteristics, like the Lizard Woman who leads the crusade against Sarah, convinced that she is a demon who is preventing the rainfall. She goes to the Triune, three powerful men whose job is to punish those the people want punished, for help in destroying Sarah. Sarah must find a way to make it rain before she is killed. Sarah is a verbal child trapped among taciturn adults. Although her parents love her very much, they can't relate to her need for understanding. Sarah finds a kindred spirit in Lilly, her great-grandmother, but even Lilly can't quite believe it when Sarah tells her about the spirit that only she can see. Sarah can communicate with Marishan Borisan, who appears as a fox to her, because she can turn his thoughts into words. Marishan explains he is a "kind of pattern" who holds together parts of the natural world, and he enables Sarah to learn what it's like to be a hawk, a flower, and a tree. He also explains to her about the three parts of her self: the outside self, the whirling self, and the middle self. The middle self contains a story woven by an enchanted weaver, and this is what makes a person unique. Sarah must look to the middle of the middles when she asks "the Mysterious Woman under the ground" to make it rain, for "only the true spirit of a person may speak to the Mysterious Woman." Eventually, Marishan helps Sarah to become ice, which melts and seeps into the souls of the mob who have come to kill her. The mist cleanses their souls, then rises to the sky to become rainclouds. This story can be read by different ages and on different levels. Besides being a magical adventure story, it also emphasizes the importance of caring for the earth, and so should appeal to lovers of environmental stories as well as fantasy. In addition, the book shows the value of communication. Sarah's recognition of the importance of thoughts and words, and her struggle for a greater understanding of herself and her surroundings, allow her to realize that only through better communication can she save the world. [Editor's Note: After several reprints by a small press, this mythic fable was extensively rewritten for publication by a major house. As an adult fantasy by a first novelist, it may miss its YA audience, which responds enthusiastically when librarians bring it to their notice.]
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312316983
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/6/2003
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Swain Wolfe

Swain Wolfe was raised on ranches in the high country of Colorado and Montana. As a young man, he was a logger and later an underground minder in Butte, Montana. He is the author of The Parrot Trainer and The Lake Dreams the Sky. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Biography

Swain Wolfe is a writer and filmmaker who has lived in Montana most of his life. His early films were made in Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Montana. An interest in cultural anthropology resulted in the films Energy & Morality, about the effect of high energy use on social behavior, and Phantom Cowboy, about the ways groups and individuals heighten their sense of identity by using aggression to isolate themselves and their causes from the general public. His films have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and have twice represented the United States in the International Public Television Conference.

Recent projects have taken him to a Bedouin shantytown on the Gulf of Aqaba and to an island in Alaska to observe and film grizzly bears. The latter film, The Sacred Bear, will explore bear stories from early Eurasian and North American cultures, and compare our present views of nature with those of our early ancestors. One day in a meadow by the sea, he woke from a nap to find himself surrounded by five large grizzlies. He explained, "The bears were eating Chocolate Lilies. They ignored me. But sometimes, when I'm just waking up, I can still feel bears around me: large, serene, self-possessed bears."

For years, Wolfe lived and worked around natural storytellers. The first were the cowboys he lived with as a boy on ranches in Colorado and Montana. As a young man he worked in the underground copper mines of Butte and Walkerville, and later as a logger in the Bitterroot Mountains. In an interview for The Bloomsbury Review, he explained how these jobs affected the way he sees the world:

"When you're underground for a while, you begin to get the feel of where the ore flows, how hard the granite is one place from another, how hot the wall temperature is from level to level, where the earth slips and messes up the tracks, and things you knew but never had words for. Then one day after work you drive over to Anaconda to see your girl and you realize something is very different. Your world is never going to be the same because you cannot be on the surface without thinking about what's underneath. And like water seeping through sand, that sensation invades everything, all your thoughts, your dreams. You're never the same. The mines let you see in unconventional ways. At the same time, many of the miners knew how to tell stories better and with greater purpose than any I've read.

"After the mines, I worked in the woods. I became intensely aware of trees, which created another world for me and a very different way of seeing. Our early ancestors believed the world was alive and aware of us. I know how that feels and it affects how I write and how I tell stories." His novel The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, evolved over a period of years. "The end of the story came from a dream I had as a child. The personalities of the people, even various animals, and, of course, all those experiences that show up in small, unconscious ways -- all these things became a vague sensation that surrounded my dream. Then one day it was a story. It was like seeing a face for the first time in the ancient plaster of your kitchen wall. We can look at something for years, and suddenly see it."

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Adam Michalo (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      Montana
    1. Date of Birth:
      1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Denver, Colorado

Read an Excerpt

Stones

Sarah rose up through the dry sage and the shimmering heat as she climbed the hill toward her father and the huge horse. She carried a pail of water and a bundle wrapped in dark red cloth. Where the sagebrush ended and the plowing began she stopped to poke at the fresh earth with her bare foot. For a moment she peered down at something hidden in the ground, then continued across the new-plowed furrows to where her father waited. She turned and looked back. "Something strange is buried there, near the edge of the field," she said.

He took a drink from the waterskin and studied her dark, almond eyes and her burnished cheeks. Perhaps she was teasing. "Is it stone?" he asked, as the field did not lack for stone.

His dry, skeptical tone brought a wry smile to her face. "Yes," she said, "it's made of stone, but it's not like the others."

He was large and strong. A piece of faded red cloth covered his head like a small turban. His face, darkened by the sun and dirt, made the white of his eyes bright and intense. To a stranger he would be a crazy man, but to Sarah he was her father, who was Aesa, a farmer covered with the dirt of his field.

They ate their lunch of goat cheese, black bread, and boiled eggs. Horatio the plowhorse drank from the pail.

Sarah watched her father and wondered what it felt like to be so tall and strong, to leave deep footprints in the soft dirt of the plowed field. But he had no words for his life and that made him a mystery to her.

He blocked the burning sun from his eyes and studied the hot, dying hills to the west. Never had so much died for lack of rain. He drank from the waterskin, spilling the cool water overhis lips and down his neck. The pure taste, the clean stone smell, and the simple joy of drinking water brought a thought into his head that was completely new to him, and dreadful. He peered into the mouth of the waterskin and asked, "What would happen if . . . ?" but he stopped. He stared out across the field, searching for another thought.

Sarah heard something in his voice, something small but sharp. She insisted: "If what, Father?"

He said nothing. She looked at him, demanding the "if what." His dark eyes looked into hers and he said, "If our well went dry?"

"No water at all?" she asked. He answered with a nod so slight she barely noticed.

There was always water in the well. She watched the horse, his muzzle pressed firmly against the bottom of the pail, savoring his last drink until evening. "Horatio would be thirsty," she said, making a game of her father's question.

"Yes," he said. "What else?"

"We'd all be thirsty. The garden too."

"And what happens if the garden dries up?"

"Plants die." She gouged a furrow with her heel in the dry earth and thought about the green garden. She studied his eyes for signs of play.

She found only the serious, dazed eyes of a farmer in a drought. His voice searched for the thread of his thoughts: "When it rains . . . some goes like a mist . . . into the air . . . and some goes through roots . . . to plants. But some goes deep into the ground. Where do you think it goes?"

"Rain goes into our well?"

He nodded and ate his lunch and let her have her thoughts.

She wrapped her sinewy arms around her knees and rocked back and forth with her toes. Finally she asked, "How does the rain find the well?"

"We dug the well to where the water flows."

She looked at the plowed ground between her feet: "You mean there's a river deep down?"

"Yes, like a river." He reached down and pressed his hard callused hand into the dry earth, then looked up at the sky. "There's been no rain for a long time."

She was embarrassed that she knew so little about the well. She tried to picture the river underground and waited for her father to finish what he meant to say.

Finally he said, "I don't think the well will go dry, my pretty child."

The words "my pretty child" stuck like thistles in her thoughts and made her feel small. She stood, long-backed and straight, and felt the warm earth under her bare feet. She looked at him. "If it doesn't rain on the field we won't have grain for bread or porridge. What will we do if there's no rain?"

Aesa had not expected this. He wondered how little he knew his daughter and said the simple truth, "We'll have to leave."

"Where will we go?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said and hoped his desperation was not carried in his words.

She pretended to hear what he wanted her to hear: a heart so confident that it could say "I don't know," and feel no fear. "We could go to your grandmother's, couldn't we?" she asked.

He looked down at her and smiled and, in a dreamy way that made her laugh, he said, "Yes, that's just where we'll go."

She watched the huge horse sniff at his empty pail. The dark patterns of loam and sweat on his neck and flanks revealed a story of muscle bound to bone. She walked through the dry dirt, patted his silky muzzle, and rubbed the horn nubbin between his ears.

She tied her fine black hair behind her head with the red cloth, picked up the empty pail, and crossed the plowed furrows, pushing clods into the loose dirt with her heels. At the edge of the field she stopped and looked down at the thing hidden in dirt: a straight, black edge of stone.

"A slate," she thought, like her own, though much larger—more than four times the length of her foot and nearly as wide. She knelt down and dug the dirt away with her hands. Near the top on one side was a long, gray gouge that ended at a chipped edge. This mark seemed clean and new. She decided it was made by her father's plow.

Below the gouge she felt, then saw, a strange thing that made her eyes widen: letters cut in stone—a curious kind of writing she had never seen. The shapes of the letters reminded her of bean vines and pea pods. And there were slashes like the thin red petals of flowers that grew among the sage. She dug deeper as her head filled with thoughts of what it said, what kind of people put it there, what became of them. Maybe they hid in the hills, living in caves. "They could be watching." Her heart pounded with her thoughts.

She discovered the words were carved in a large circle and inside the circle was another, thicker circle of words. Several small, shallow holes were carved inside this second circle. And the sun grew hotter and the dirt harder. Her hair stuck to her forehead, dirt clung to her plain muslin dress, and the people hiding in caves receded from her thoughts. Finally her sore fingers made her decide it was worth a trip down to the shed for a shovel.

She stood at the field's edge looking down over the crest of the sage-covered hill. From there she could just see the top of the doorway to the farmhouse. West of the house was the garden with its high rail fence to keep the deer out. And twenty long steps to the east was a large shed, with its forge, tools, bins of grain, and the necessary shovel. Between the shed and the garden was the well and its windlass frame.

Below the house the land sloped down toward a dense grove of juniper trees and emerged on the other side as the rock ledge of a mesa. The hidden mesa looked out over a narrow canyon and far to the south and west was a range of high, sharp mountains—solid blue and flat as paper cut out and pasted against the sky.

As she descended the hill her father's words filled her mind: "I don't think the well will go dry, my pretty child." The words repeated themselves, rolling over and over like stones in her head. They rolled down the path through the sagebrush and far back into the dark interior of the shed. The words gradually came to a stop as she searched for the shovel. After her eyes could see in the dim light, the shovel appeared, but when she turned to go she was blinded by the patch of bright rectangular light that was the doorway and beyond it the yard. In the middle of the light, in the middle of the yard, stood the well, glowing in the bright sun.

For a moment it seemed as though the well would disappear, as though the stone wall and the windlass poles would waver and fade away, leaving only the patch of bright light framed in the dusty darkness of the shed. She walked toward the light, which grew larger and larger until she was standing in the doorway. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness she watched the well become real again. She wondered if there was a way to know if it was going dry.

Sarah walked out into the harsh light and up the hill through the sage to uncover the mysterious words hidden in dirt. She worked the awkward shovel into the reluctant earth. As she dug deeper and deeper into the dry dirt the lack of rain became frightening—it was as dry two feet down as it was on the surface.

She stopped digging and used her sore, dry fingers to feel near the base of the stone slate for the slightest trace of moisture, but there was none. She could only feel that sharp edge of fear she had heard in her father's voice.

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Table of Contents

1 Stones 1
2 Dreamrakers 10
3 Girkincod 19
4 A Lizard on Wheels 33
5 The Strangest Thing 48
6 Three Times Round 65
7 Marishan Borisan 82
8 An Enchanted Weaver 94
9 Green Lizards Dancing 103
10 The River Running Underground 115
11 The Demon Child 129
12 Dry Souls 145
13 The Dark Tower 159
14 After Many Years 171
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Reading Group Guide

1. The hero of this story is a young girl, Sarah, who becomes the object of the local villagers’ fear and hatred. Why is Sarah capable of transformation? How does her view of the world differ from those around her?

2. In fairytales and fables, responsible, caring adults are often absent. Why is this so? How is our freedom or lack of it reflected in our interaction with the world?

3. The fox-like creature Marishan Borisan acts as an agent of change in a transitional world defined by the memory of what has been and the hope of what will be. How does he influence transformation? What does he represent in all of us?

4. Sarah and her great-grandmother Lilly have a very special relationship. How do youth and age, or innocence and experience resemble each other? Do women still pass their wisdom from generation to generation?

5. The novel takes place in a time before modern machines or long after their fall in a primitive world, threatened by a severe drought. How does the emotional and natural landscape of the novel reflect contemporary society? Several reviewers have described the story as “timeless,” as “a moral fable for these and all times.” Why has this canvas been considered universal?

6. Sarah is pursued by the Lizard Woman, the embodiment of the villagers’ fear and superstition along with her allies, Kreel, Greyling Eyes and Henkel, a Triune who represent authority, terror and record-keeping. How does this treacherous triumvirate embody the ills of society? How have these behaviors affected human history? Can you think of instances when our culture has demonized certain behaviors and belief systems?

7. The story has been described as a fable or a parable. How does such a form of storytelling serve to express the real story, which is true and useful?

8. The author believes that stories serve to tell us how and where we fit into the culture and how we can change society’s hold on us. What does the novel suggest about the effect of culture on an individual? Or the effect of an individual on culture?

9. According to the author, the real meaning of a story is found in the individual quest—the solitary journey for redemption and resolution of personal dreams, demons and dramas set against the oppressive, inescapable landscape of culture. Stories tell us who we are and where we came from. They allow us to change the shape and direction of our lives. What personal meaning do you find in this story? Is there an overreaching application on a societal level?

10. The stories of our ancient ancestors told them how to negotiate with the spirits of animals—how to acquire power through nature. Later, our stories began to tell us how to acquire power over nature. Leaders in the ecology movement have embraced The Woman Who Lives in the Earth. What does the novel suggest about the power of nature and our relationship to it?

11. The story is unflinching in its portrayal of the aggression that accompanies fear. Where do we see such a pairing on societal and individual levels today?

12. When Sarah leaves the relative isolation and freedom of her family’s farm, she becomes directly involved with the needs and concerns of the town. She confronts opposition. Her redemption comes to her by solving a problem, not by explaining herself. How do we deal with retreat and engagement in our society? In our lives? How does society deal with those who choose isolation or full engagement as a way of life? Can fully engaged individuals change society? Can you name anyone who has?

13. What does the title The Woman Who Lives in the Earth suggest to you about the natural world?

14. Swain Wolfe’s writing has been described by critics as “sparse, poetic,” “lean and powerful,” “prose like night air.” How would you describe the atmosphere of the novel? What is it about the language that creates that atmosphere? How does the language allow us to accept the magic realism of the story?

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