I had eyed the Plain Kate cover for quite a while before I bought it. Every time, I’d pick it up, think “Ooooo, pretty” and then decide that it wasn’t what I was in the mood for right then (read: angsty teenage romances). Because I’m an idiot. And then when I finally bought it, I kind of did the same thing. I read a little and thought, ok, yes, I like this, but this is not what I need right this immediate second. See: because I’m an idiot. And that perhaps my favorite thing about Erin Bow’s Plain Kate: it surprised me. It wasn’t at all expected when I was hemming and hawing over it, and, even though I’d (stupidly) ignored this book for much too long, when I started really reading, I couldn’t put it down.
Plain Kate tells the story of, well, Plain Kate. Plain Kate is a wood carver with a true gift, one her father cultivates until a sickness that devastates Plain Kate’s town takes him away from her. Alone in a town that distrusts her gifts, Plain Kate struggles to get by, alone except for her cat, Taggle, who can talk. When a mysterious stranger comes ashore, all of that changes. Plain Kate can no longer hide in the shadows because, thanks to this stranger, the townsfolk thinks she is a witch. Plain Kate flees with Taggle, joining a band of roamers and discovering the dangers of magical prejudice and the consequences it brings.
This book was magic. I’m not just saying it because it was about magic. I mean it was magic. Because, I’ll admit, the first fifty or so pages were pretty bleak. I found it hard to get through them. But then I did and I knew exactly why Erin Bow had written them that way. The buildup of tension in this book was one of the best I’d read in a long time. You build up revelations in yourself as you read. I thought Taggle was adorable for the whole book and so cat-like. But out of nowhere, the plot shifts and I am borderline sobbing over how much I love him. And it came out of nowhere for me. I couldn’t believe it. The whole book was the same way. It was complex and dark and yet so hopeful. Because Plain Kate is hopeful when almost no one in her situation would be able to muster up the will to go on.
Plain Kate has a hard life. A ridiculously hard life. A life that seems to get harder and harder with every turn of the page. But those first fifty, terribly bleak pages showed me that Kate is a survivor. She survives, and she doesn’t need much to do it. She’ll also break your heart into a million pieces. She’s so fragile and lonely and vulnerable and all you want to do is cuddle her and let her carve you some adorable wooden trunks and things in whatever time is leftover after you have force fed her delicious hot food and cookies and let her have hot baths and lots of love. I think Kate may be one of my top five YA girls ever.
I said I loved this book because it surprised me, and it really did. Because the “villain” was not a nice man. But he wasn’t just evil. He wasn’t evil for the sake of it. His path was tortured and dark and, if her weren’t doing what he was doing, maybe my heart would have broken a little for him too. For me, a well-drawn “villain” is the mark of a superb novel.
Plain Kate had not one but two villains. The second wasn’t even a person. It was an idea – an idea that if someone is different or strange you should tie them to a stake and burn them. Or, at the very best, run them out of town to starve. If someone is different in a way that scares you, blame them for your problems and beat them to make yourself feel better. And watching Kate survive that – the persecution even by those who themselves were persecuted – was terrible and wonderful all at once. Wonderful because Kate is the kind of role model you hope young girls have. Someone who sees beyond her own misery and her own persecution to look at the future and at the rest of the world. This was what made Plain Kate so powerful for me. Powerful enough to stick with me for days and even now.
Basically, I’m kind of obsessed with this book. Because I’m afraid of building expectations so high that nothing could meet them, I’ll say that this wasn’t a perfect book. In the beginning, I found the use of “Plain Kate” to be kind of a lot, and that was one of the things that slowed down my progress. And…ok that was my only real complaint. But it doesn’t matter, because I really think this book can stand up to the expectations I may have built for it.
Plain Kate was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I can’t believe it was a debut novel, and I can’t believe it took me so long to read it. I loved this book so much that my review is rambly and effusive and maybe a little incoherent, and I don’t even mind. It wasn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up just because there wasn’t a romantic subplot, but that made it even better. Please give Plain Kate a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Note: If you are buying Plain Kate outside of the United States or Canada, it seems to be called The Wood Angel in some countries.