Author: Robin McKinley.
The only daughter of a beloved king and queen, Princess Lissar has grown up in the shadow of her parent’s infinite adoration for each other—an infatuation so great that it could only be broken by the queen’s unexpected passing. As Lissar reaches womanhood, it becomes clear to everyone in the kingdom that she has inherited her late mother’s breathtaking beauty. But on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Lissar’s exquisite looks become a curse…
Betrayed and abused, Lissar is forced to flee her home to escape her father’s madness. With her loyal dog Ash at her side, Lissar finds refuge in the mountains where she has the chance to heal and start anew. And as she unlocks a door to a world of magic, Lissar finds the key to her survival and begins an adventure beyond her wildest dreams.
I’m not familiar with the fairy tale (Donkeyskin) this springs from, but long before I got to the end and saw the author’s note I knew the story was a fairy-tale. From the fairy-tale epitaphs like “the fairest woman in seven kingdoms” to the dreamy prose, from the conscious tropes to the startling juxtaposition of bloody violence against kindness and beauty, there’s nothing else it could be.
Don’t take me to mean a Disney story, either. Deerskin is quite dark for portions. It’s the story of one girl’s trauma and pain, as simple as that. Lissla and her dog, Ash, are the only characters on screen for a good portion of the book, for much of the plot is very internal. It’s slow, and repetitive, and focused on a single storyline instead of weaving many threads together.
But for all that, Deerskin resonates with me. The mythology of Moonwoman, who saves Lissla, is lovely. We only see her once, but she is a quiet presence of kindness throughout the rest of the story; she’s a legend in their country, and Lissla is frequently taken for her. To me, Lissla almost seemed to take on the role of handmaiden (Like Artemis’s handmaidens? It’s not quite the right word) to the gentle spirit who saved her, as the princess helps the countryfolk with such acts as finding a lost child through a semi-magical sense she acquired after the Moonwoman’s intervention.
Of course I love Ash. The gorgeous, loyal sighthound is both a theme running through the book (elaboration on that in a moment) and a character in her own right. The first time someone thinks of Lissla, rather than The Princess, is when a foreign prince sends her a puppy from his favorite dog’s litter to keep her company in the wake of her mother’s death. That moment of human kindness from a boy who didn’t even know her at the time is what saves Lissla in a very real way. There is no one in the court to raise her, to teach and mother and instill virtue; Lissla has to seize independance with her own two hands if she will escape the manipulation of the court, and for Ash she does it.
In the darkest moment of the book, when Lissla’s own father rapes her and the rest of the world has stood aside and let him, she almost lets go of life. She’s beaten and bloody, despairing and ashamed, hurting too deeply to even understand what’s happened. But Ash needs her, and for her dog – the only living thing depending on her – Lissla finds a will to live so savage that she not only drags herself back from the edge of death, she escapes the castle and flees into the woods. And there is no way she would have survived winter alone in the woods if it wasn’t for Ash’s presence and encouragement.
By this point we’re getting well into the second half of the book, and I don’t want to spoil it all for you. But I will say that there is finally human interaction again, with some very sweet characters; there’s a whole litter of puppies; and there’s some measure of healing. Lissla will never be unmarked by her experience, of course. But that doesn’t mean she won’t live, and love, and find happiness again.
Some thematically dark stories leave you shuddering, a bad taste in your mouth, ready to close the book and have it all over with. Deerskin is not one of them. It ends with light, and hope, and the fresh sharp scent of pine.
Sexual Content: See “Violence” for one incident of major sexual violence. // It’s not presented sexually, but the first time a female character bathes herself after being assaulted she is alarmed by her own naked body and breasts; she forces herself to look and remember that this is her own body; her body and breasts are described. Again, later, she briefly looks at her naked body in a stream.
Language: 1 d***
Violence: Girl’s father attacks her in her room; he hits her across the face and shoulders when she screams, and keeps beating her until her voice gives out. Then he rapes her. It’s a somewhat nightmarish (dream-like) sequence, but still very violent. / Man catches and throws a dog against the wall, knocking it out and injuring it./ Dog kills and eats mice./ A huge beast attacks a character and her dogs in the dark; the dogs attack and bite, hanging on, the girl stabs it several times with her knife, and the the thing dies. There’s a later almost-repeat of this scene during the daytime, more distinct, wherein several dogs are injured, one especially badly with a gash down its belly.