The Braided Path
by Donna Glee Williams
Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes
The Braided Path is a quiet book, full of good characters trying to discover their path. In fact, the metaphor of the path runs throughout the book. The path, the rope, the braids that bind individuals together into couples and couples together into communities. It is a love story, a coming of age story, and a fable. Mostly it is about characters seeking their place in their world.
While this is undoubtedly an invented universe, I pictured The Braided Path taking place in the remote villages in the Andes Mountains, a single stone-hewn path leading from one village to another to another with jagged saw-tooth mountains as far as the eye can see, each taller than the last, snow covered and impassable. Each villager knows only his village and a little more, those towns to which he has walked on the stone-hewn path, and those few more he has heard about. The villagers are naïve in the way natives on remote islands can be naïve, believing that cities and ships and yes, even the ocean are but tales used to frighten children. There is only the path, and the youth must find their place on it, their home village, their trade, their lovers and their family. Anyone who travels to more than a handful of villages is considered a Far-Walker.
Cam and Fox are two such youth. Friends at first, and then lovers, the two walk past villages and more villages, trying to find their limits. Cam is drawn ever upwards, and Fox towards the mythical ocean at the bottom of the world, until one day when Cam hears about hot springs in the snowy reaches Fox refuses to climb. After much distress, Cam abandons her, intending to explore the warm-water oasis and return in a few short weeks.
But that never happens.
Cam crosses the pass between the great peaks only to find the path intersects more paths. Soon he is swept away (literally, but I won't spoil the surprise) and fights to survive in a world completely beyond his experience, the world of commerce and congestion.
Meanwhile Fox finds herself with child. Snow blocks the path Cam took over the mountains, and down below, an earthquake destroys the path. The villages become more isolated than ever; trade from down below stops. If the villagers don't come together their way of life will be destroyed forever. Even survival is questionable, especially for the young mother and her newborn.
There are many precious characters in The Braided Path. Len, Cam's mother and a lifeline to Fox. Nish, the visiting fisherman who claims his very house borders the ocean. Lia Midwife who fights like a badger to keep Fox's baby alive--and has the badger's temper. Genia, the captain of The Duck, a river trader who treats her crew as family, unless the ship gets untidy. Then watch out.
The Braided Path defies genre description. It is a fantasy without magic. A romance without quarreling courtship. An adventure without villains. Most of all, The Braided Path celebrates the quest for purpose at the heart of so much human endeavor while at the same time celebrating humanity itself, friendship, love, wounded communities drawing together in a struggle shared.
This is the perfect book to read on a sunny day with the heat on your back. Not because a thunderhead would frighten you--it is not that kind of book--but because it is a sunny kind of book. The kind that makes you glad you read it, the day a little brighter.
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