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The Dubious Hills

The Dubious Hills is mysterious, powerful, paradoxical story. It’s both very small (milk pans left outside, dogs sleeping on a doorstep, planting beans while school’s out) and very, very big (the nature of knowledge, pain, and freedom and compulsion). It’s a story that directly addresses philosophical questions while at the same time making you remember what it’s like to be five years old (or live with a five-year-old). It’s about coping with abandonment and loss; it’s about struggling to care for your little brother and sister in the face of a terrifying threat.

I just can’t get over how many things it does at once, and all in prose that’s simultaneously beautiful and unassuming:

The wind pounced on them hard. It had blown some of the clouds away and stretched the rest across the sky like rags on a loom to make a rug. A blue and white and gray rug like that would be pretty, thought Arry. But how do I know that? Do I know that?

Why does Arry, the story’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, ask how, and if, she knows about beauty? She asks because in the Dubious Hills, where she lives, everyone has only one province of knowledge. This is the result of an ancient spell, designed to end conflict and war.1 A person may know about people’s characters, or about pain, or about the names and properties of plants, or how to cast spells2—but that’s the only thing they know. For the rest of their knowledge, they have to depend on other members of their community. Arry’s province is pain. She knows when other people are hurt, and to some degree she knows how they may heal their hurts, though if it comes to things being broken (a split lip, a broken leg), it becomes her friend Oonan’s province.

Within your province, your knowledge is complete and utter. You have no doubt. (The word “doubt” is an obscenity in the Dubious Hills.) And so long as you can attribute a piece of knowledge to someone else whose province it is, that knowledge is certain too. You know the saying about the hedgehog and the fox ("a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”)? The population of the Dubious Hills are hedgehogs.

So what would disturb a population of hedgehogs? How about the coming of some foxes? Beings that suggest that you needn’t be limited to knowing one thing? Within the story, the foxes are wolves—werewolves. In particular, one great werewolf, who kills when he is not hungry and wants to free the people of the Dubious Hills from their benighted state. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, he tempts the innocent, as here, speaking to Arry’s wayward little sister Con:

“This is the only way to know everything,” [the werewolf said] …
Con scowled as only Con could. “How do you know it’s the only way?” …
“I don’t,” said [the werewolf], readily. “But it’s the only way for you, here and now.”
“Mother said anything worth having was worth waiting for.”
“You have been waiting for it … You needn’t wait any longer now.”

I think Pamela Dean is a genius, because she manages to make you root—against expectation and cultural habit—for the circumscribed way of life of the Dubious Hills, when normally stories are all about coming out from under limitations and into greater knowledge. We’re used to Prometheus being the hero, but this story makes you think about what the cost of knowledge is. It’s a hardscrabble, chapped-cheeks Eden of wizened apples up in the Dubious Hills, but Pamela makes it infinitely precious.3

She doesn’t fail to show the werewolf’s perspective: How can I conscionably leave you in ignorance? It’s not a spurious question by any means, certainly not in real life, and not in the story either. But if you once decide that someone poses a deadly threat, how do you deal with it? Let me use a double negative and say that the solution Pamela offers is not untroubling. It works within the story—it has heft and feels right—but, well, it’s not untroubling.

I’ve focused on the big-question aspect of the story, but I adored the daily-life aspects, too. I loved Arry’s interactions with her neighbors and especially with Con and their brother Beldi. Con was marvelous: insisting that she be allowed to do a task barefoot, singing songs with no words, playing games with piles of slate, making pancakes using an intoxicating concoction—definitely marvelous.

(Also the story took place more or less at this time of year, in a climate more or less like mine. There were tender new greens, just like there are now.)

In the Dubious Hills, Jony would tell you what these are

I am so very, very glad I read this book. I look forward to reading some of Pamela’s others—Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, for instance. It and The Dubious Hills are now in print again after a long absence. You can get them here (scroll down).

1 The logic of the ancient spell casters isn’t ever laid out explicitly. How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict? I think the notion is that in order to live—in order to know what plants are edible and how to give birth safely and how to erect a barn—you’re going to have to depend on your neighbors, so you had better not be fighting with them.
2The broadness or narrowness of the various provinces, and their levels of concreteness or abstraction, are arbitrary (and varied). This is fine: given that the whole set-up was brought about by human spellmaking, it makes sense that it would be arbitrary and not particularly logical—like humans themselves.
3And she does it without an ounce of annoying whimsy. There's nothing cutesy or foolish about the people in the Dubious Hills. You don't feel inclined to condescend to them.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2016 12:08 pm (UTC)
Wow! Sounds terrific!
Apr. 13th, 2016 12:14 pm (UTC)
It was terrific. It was the sort of book that makes you go up to people who haven't read it and start talking about it and reading from it.
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:30 pm (UTC)
I read it many years ago and found it fascinating. I ought to put it on the re-read list, except I read very slowly these days due to the distractions of the internet.
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:43 pm (UTC)
And it's hard to do rereads when there's so much wonderful new-to-you stuff to read. But this book really struck me as remarkable.
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:56 pm (UTC)
Oooooh, that sounds wonderful. I'm going to have to read it now!!!
Apr. 13th, 2016 01:58 pm (UTC)
I'd love to hear your thoughts once you have!
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:05 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a wonderful read! And this is really intriguing: I think Pamela Dean is a genius, because she manages to make you root—against expectation and cultural habit—for the circumscribed way of life of the Dubious Hills, when normally stories are all about coming out from under limitations and into greater knowledge.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah: assenting to the werewolf would destroy the community, and the werewolf isn't really going to take no for an answer. (Though, frankly, even if he would, once you have the option to live differently, and some people accepting it, the community can't continue. It's sort of like an Amish community. You can't live in that community and use the tech that they won't use.) And while it's true that stories along the lines of "Now an enemy threatens to destroy the community!!" are fairly common, and we root for the community, stories in which we root for people turning away from MOAR KNOWLEDGE are fewer. Perelandra is one: Venus's Eve decides not to go the same way as Earth's Eve. But what Pamela does is show you how you wouldn't be simply gaining; you'd also be losing. It's not that the people in the Dubious Hills don't know things--they do! And they know some things in a way, way more intimate way than people on the outside possibly can.

And yet swing that round to the present world, and how US society feels about people, say, rejecting Western learning in favor of Madrassa learning (putting aside the whole terrorism element: I'm talking merely about wanting to learn in a certain framework, and certain subject matter). Complicated stuff is complicated.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:28 pm (UTC)
Can you expand a bit on the last part about the Madrassa? I don't watch the news or follow what is going on much in the States, so I know about this "rejecting Western learning" thing. :)
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:47 pm (UTC)
I'm not thinking of anything in particular, just that the general attitude seems to be that it's terrible to let kids/make kids only be educated in madrassas, and that they'd be better off with Western-style learning, but... whose decision is that to make? What happens when you have two absolutes that come into conflict? Well, we know, but.
Apr. 13th, 2016 05:29 pm (UTC)
Ah! I thought you had observed a current of thought happening in the other direction, i.e. Westerners abandoning the idea of Western-style learning in favor of madrasas.
Apr. 13th, 2016 05:34 pm (UTC)
Not particularly, though in this country too, some people definitely prefer to close off certain avenues or types of knowledge. It's a faulty analogy, though (on my part--my fault for bringing it up with the madrassas), because it's not that folks in the Dubious Hills are turning away from knowledge--on the contrary, they have access to a degree of certitude that no one outside can have--it's just a matter of how they know. The werewolf offers them access to knowledge along the lines that we have it--but it means losing knowledge the way they have it now.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:07 pm (UTC)
What a lovely review.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:15 pm (UTC)
I really adored the book.
Apr. 13th, 2016 04:53 pm (UTC)
You have made my day. I don't know if this is the kind of review every writer hopes for, but it's exactly the kind that I hope for. I'm so glad you liked the book.

Apr. 13th, 2016 05:02 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you wrote this book! There is nothing else like it; it's a pleasure on so many levels. There are *so many* more things I loved about it, and so many more thinky-thoughts I had about it, but at least this is something. I also added a bunch of passages I really loved to Goodreads, but not all.

I really loved Con. I really loved Arry. I really loved everyone pitching in and helping everyone else. I really loved Mally. i really loved Niss and the warding. I really loved the blushful Hippocrene (and I loved the spells! What a brilliant idea that was, to use snatches of great poetry) I really loved the inquisition of Tiln on beauty. I really loved how cold and muddy it was at the start of the book. I really loved how terrifying, truly terrifying, the werewolf was. Nightmarish and so real.
Apr. 13th, 2016 08:27 pm (UTC)
I often end up not writing a review because I can't say everything; but it's much better to have the review than not. I'll have to try to remember that the next time I dismiss the idea of writing a book post.

The use of poetry as spells is in the Secret Country trilogy, too.

Thank you so much again.

Apr. 13th, 2016 11:19 pm (UTC)
I find myself a bit taken-aback by the nature of knowledge implicit in the novel, going by your description. But I haven't yet read the book. I bought it on Kindle and will get it read if I live long enough-- it sounds very interesting!
Apr. 13th, 2016 11:48 pm (UTC)
I'll be very interested in all your thoughts, no matter where they take you and what their nature.
Apr. 17th, 2016 04:48 am (UTC)
I was lucky and got to read /The Dubious Hills/, first time, not long after it was first published.
I have long expressed the opinion that this is my favorite Pamela Dean novel, and while I'm a lot more impressed by JGR on my recent reread than I was on the first reading, I think that if we revise by adding the adjective to make it "personal favorite", Dubious Hills still holds my title.

And this LJ post of yours is the one I've most enjoyed reading in the last 365 days, at least.
Apr. 17th, 2016 04:50 am (UTC)
Re: I was lucky and got to read /The Dubious Hills/, first time, not long after it was first publish
It's truly a remarkable story, and I can completely understand it being a personal favorite--I think it's one of mine!

And this is a very high compliment you've paid me--thank you very much. I'm very, very touched and pleased you enjoyed the entry so much.
Aug. 24th, 2016 12:25 am (UTC)
How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
Because the best {now have} all conviction, while the worst are {no longer} full of passionate intensity. (At least until the werewolves showed up.) I don't think the spell casters had explicit logic; I don't think that's the way magic works in that world.
(I'm here from rachelmanija's review)
Aug. 24th, 2016 02:35 am (UTC)
Re: How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
Because the best {now have} all conviction, while the worst are {no longer} full of passionate intensity.

Whoa. That is a really intense parsing. Poetry magic--the way all the spells in the book are poems. It's like your answer to my question jumped straight out of the book. I'm getting shivers. Thank you!
Aug. 24th, 2016 03:22 am (UTC)
Re: How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
Okay, I enjoyed showing off, now I have to confess I had help. I heard Pamela talk about wanting to use Yeats quotes in the book but not getting the rights. There's a couple of other places where you can see a palimpsest Yeats when you know to look for them.
Aug. 24th, 2016 03:29 am (UTC)
Re: How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
Woot! This makes it even better because it's **canon**!

(Even knowing there are palimsest Yeats poems in there, I feel like I'd be unlikely to see them... though now I'm wondering--is there anything that plays on
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

Yeats, man. YEATS. Someone had made a mobile of the verses of "Song of Wandering Aengus," and it was hung in my high school English classroom. I memorized it, watching the verses turn.
Aug. 24th, 2016 04:07 am (UTC)
Re: How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
I don't remember soul clap its hands, but it's been a long time since I reread it, so I might have forgotten, or just missed it.

That sounds like a lovely idea for a mobile. What did it look like? Moths and stars and apples?
Aug. 24th, 2016 04:17 am (UTC)
Re: How does everyone having just one province of knowledge prevent conflict?
Moths and stars and apples?

Yes, exactly: and the calligraphy done in something like uncial font.

(I've read it pretty recently, as this entry attests, and yet with my memory, details vanish swiftly. It's one reason I like to write down quotes.)
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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