Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl Reviewed by Gina Boyd

enchantress from the stars

I have never met another person who has read this Newbery Honor book from 1971.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I have students to whom I have read this book aloud, and I have recommended the book to others who have read it.  But I have never met anyone who has read it without my influence.  This is a book endorsed by Madeline L’Engle and Ursula LeGuin!  The foreword to the 2001 edition was written by Lois Lowry!  And yet it remains in obscurity.

I first encountered this book in 2002 as a part of my (as yet unfinished) quest to read all of the Newbery and Newbery Honor books.  And even now, after having read it aloud to my classes of for years, I am still in awe of Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s science fiction/fairy tale/romance.  (Hold on.  Don’t get scared off by the romance part.  It’s actually that kind of almost-but-not-really romance that Robert C. O’Brien accomplishes between Justin and Mrs. Frisby in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH).

I love this book.  Its depth and complexity blow me away every time.  I love it because I could never, ever write it.  I could never think of a young adult novel with such intricacy.  I would never have fleshed out such thought-provoking ideas.  I love this book because it challenges me to think about hard questions.

What is the difference between science and magic?  How does one’s frame of reference influence how one views unexplainable or unexpected events?  How do relationships empower and change us?  Where are we, as inhabitants of Earth, in our development, and do we have cause to be optimistic or pessimistic about it?  These are just some of the issues that Engdahl addresses through this novel about Elana, a young anthropologist-in-training from a highly advanced planet.

Elana encounters Georyn, a simple woodcutter’s son, on his home planet of Andrecia.  As she tries to prevent Andrecia’s hostile takeover by a group of Imperials from yet another planet, Elana uses Georyn’s belief in magic and superstition to pose as The Enchantress.  Since the Imperials put their faith only in science, Elana tries to help Georyn convince the Imperials to leave by training him to use advanced telepathic powers not explainable by science (and as yet accessible only to highly advanced civilizations).  But Elana must help Georyn without ever revealing that other planets with more advanced civilizations exist.  Her anthropological directive is to allow other civilizations to develop naturally, without interference.  Can she help Georyn without violating her sworn obligations?   As she attempts to accomplish both tasks, she learns that, “the harder a thing is to come by, the more valuable it seems.”

Engdahl reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible as she adeptly changes voice and perspective to show us the viewpoints of Elana, Georyn, and Jarel, an Imperial who is disillusioned with his culture’s colonization practices.  Elana’s first-person voice is that of a sometimes-confident sometimes-insecure teenager trying to make sense of the mess in which she finds herself.  Georyn’s story is written in the formal, Grimm-like language of fairy tales.  And Jarel’s perspective is brought to us by an omniscient third-person narrator.  Engdahl navigates back and forth with ease, giving the reader a clearer understanding of each civilization through the writing styles she uses and through the characters that represent those civilizations.

The plot is well-paced, engaging, and even suspenseful, but it is the characters that draw you into this book.  Ms. Engdahl caused me to care about not only Elana, but also Georyn and Jarel.  Each character represents the very best of his or her own civilization while also illuminating the blind spots of each perspective.  The reader roots for all three characters even while realizing that victory for any means separation for all.

As a read-aloud, I take weeks to finish this book.  The ideas are so deep and the concepts so far outside the scope of what most 4th and 5th graders have read, that I feel it necessary to debrief often to help students unpack the weighty questions encountered in the story.

Another issue with reading this book aloud occurs because Engdahl italicizes the many conversations which occur telepathically between characters.  This is helpful to the reader but makes this a difficult book to read aloud, much as it would be difficult to read aloud Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story with its red and green print.  Listeners don’t have the advantage of being able to see the changes in font, so I always tell my students that I will touch my forehead as I read aloud to indicate that a character is using telepathy.

Whether you read it aloud or enjoy it all by yourself, it is my hope that you will be moved to pluck this book from obscurity and recommend it to many others, finally giving it its due honor.

Gina Boyd ( @4th5thgt www.gina-boyd.blogspot.com) is a Southern girl who now teaches a self-contained 4th/5th High Ability class at Mayflower Mill Elementary in Lafayette, Indiana.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who has traveled to six continents.  When she’s not reading, you can find her cooking up something yummy for her family.