Of Captivity Narratives and Xenomorph Face-huggers

Tonight I was reading my 10-year-old son a chapter in Beorn the Proud, a youth historical fiction that describes the relationship between a 9th-century Irish girl taken as a slave by the son of a Viking king. The heroine, Ness, spits out angry prophecies and pretty much gives the Vikings a piece of her mind every chance she gets, in a parallel of the story of St. Patrick (who, as a slave, brought Christianity to Ireland). For the convenience of the story, several of the Viking main characters have learned to speak Irish, so Ness has an audience for her rage.

I pointed out that her character was very different from the heroine of Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, an American pioneer girl who was kidnapped by the Seneca. Molly Jemison was depicted as in complete shock, then over the course of the book she comes to understand the Seneca language, then eventually she accepts her new life (even choosing, on more than one occasion, to return to her Indian family when she has the chance to escape).

The captivity narrative is a great vehicle for historical fiction, in part because the culture clash means that when you read, you learn about the captive’s former culture as she contrasts it with her new experiences. We’re trying to cover geography this year, and the captivity narratives let us get two different cultures at once. 

The way a captivity narrative is set up, you automatically sympathize with the victim, but a good author who contextualizes the culture can make you, if not actually condone the kidnapping, see what function the taking of captives serves in the victim’s new culture. Though Molly Jemision gets a lot of attention for her cornsilk-colored hair, the author presents the culture of her Senca captors with considerable depth; the first few chapters of Beorn the Proud suggest the author may intend to showcase the resilience of Ness’s Christianity under duress, with the Viking culture being presented as materialistic and opportunitstic — so far the only Vikings we’ve met have been raiding parties sacking monasteries — but even so, Beorn himself shows glimmers of kindness toward his captive.

As I was tucking Peter into bed, and wondering what sort of conclusions he might be drawing about the patterns that one finds in the traditional captivity narrative, I thought I should say something about the gender relationships.

As Peter was settling himself into bed, he said, “Yes, that’s the way women used to be depicted in stories all the time, weak and weepy.”

Then, stifling a yawn, and said, “Thank goodness for Ripley in Alien.”

At 10, he’s still a bit too young to see the Alien movies, though he’s right about Sigourney Weaver’s legendary kick-ass performance in the role. As I watched him curling up under the covers, I wondered aloud where he got that idea.

In reply, my son pointed sleepily towards his stack of reference books. “Science Fiction’s Greatest Monsters,” he said.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I was about his age when the original Alien first came out. (I didn’t see it until I was a teenager.)