I love fairy tales and legends. And I love modern adaptations of them. Especially those by Donna Jo Napoli. So, I was understandably excited when Hush showed up.
Set in Ireland, Scandinavia, and Russia in the early 900s, Hush is an adaptation of an Icelandic tale about a slave girl who is brought to Iceland by one of the tribal lords. The mystery of Melkorka is that she doesn't speak for over two years, and so is assumed to be mute.
Napoli's Melkorka is an Irish princess who must hide with her sister while her father avenges the mutilation of her brother at the hands of Norse visitors to Dublin, which at this time was a Norse settlement. Her father has agreed to give Melkorka to one of the Vikings as a wife, along with 12 "beautiful young maidens" to be enjoyed by his vassals. However, these "maidens" are actually Irish warriors who plan to attack once the Norsemen are drunk.
This is all just background. We never discover if this deception works, since the real action of the story follows Melkorka and her eight-year-old sister, Brigid, as they travel to a nearby ringfort disguised as boys. Along the way, they are captured by Russian slave traders and begin an agonizing journey from the land they love to the colds of Russia and Scadinavia. Brigid escapes (hopefully), but Melkorka must use silence and the head slavetrader's belief in magic to protect herself and the rest of the prisoners. Eventually, she is sold and travels to Iceland, the concubine of a Norse lord.
What makes this story so interesting is the focus on what Melkorka is thinking, since after Chapter 7 she does not speak one word. Her thoughts, emotions, and the struggle to retain her silence, no matter what, move the story. It is also intriguing to move through her world and discover the prejudices, misconceptions, and conflicts of the time period. When the story begins, Melkorka can only see the Norse as "heathens" and "crazy Vikings" bent on rape and pillage. By the end of the book, they are the only people she knows, some having become quite precious to her.
It is also a story of slavery--slavery in its earliest forms, without the issues of skin color. For all of the slaves in this book are white Europeans. But not all are the same--they differ in culture, religion, language--things that can be just as divisive, if not more, than race. Melkorka transforms from a spoiled, privileged princess into a ragged slave into a strange, witch (but still a slave) and finally becomes a treasured concubine, more like family than slave to her master. But she is not free. And the book does not wrap up with the curt happy ending. Napoli stays true to the original tale.
The thing to most recommend this book to teens is that whoever she is at various times in the story, Melkorka is always a teenage girl. She has the same emotional issues, the same hang ups as any modern teenager. And she faces prejudice and abuse as many modern teens do as well. No matter the time period, she is a remarkably strong young woman.