5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | AbeBooks.com
(Note: This book is out of print but is available used at the above links)
I first read The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman when I was fifteen or thereabouts, which I know for sure only because of the publication date (1997); I stumbled across it while it was still in bookstores, and I know I didn’t stumble on it late because after I read it, I checked bookstores for her name every time I went to one, which was at least twice a week, and this is how I came across her second book (The Divided, 1999). So I had to be 14 or 15.
I was in high school, and I had, at the time, a spare period right after lunch, which made it very easy to get a lot of reading done, and I assumed I had time to get through the rest of the book by then. I was almost right—I got through all but the last ten pages, when I had to go to my English class, which was taught by a diminutive, wonderfully kind but notoriously iron-willed woman named Ms. Saint-Pierre (everyone loved her, and yet, there were rumors—mostly spread by Ms. SP herself, I suspect—that the last student who talked too loudly while she was teaching class ended up dead in a stairwell).
At any rate, she usually started class off with warm-up/breathing exercises to get us in the creative spirit, so I tried to frantically read through the last ten pages hidden in my desk, because I literally couldn’t bring myself to put the book down. You need to understand that I wasn’t a standoffish student—I was eager to please, desperate to get high marks, and although I sometimes read in classes that I was very far ahead in, I only did it with a teacher’s permission.
Well, she noticed. “Put that away, Meredith,” she said, and, without meaning to, I blurted out:
“But I’m only three pages from the end!”
She stared at me for about ten seconds. I could see her feelings crossing her face: on the one hand, she’s teaching a class here, and needs the students to pay attention. On the other hand, the class she’s teaching is English: Creative Writing, and honestly, what is she even doing this for if not this?
“Well, hurry up and finish it then,” she told me, and went on with class.
This anecdote is partly because it’s one of my strongest memories of the first time I read this book, sure, but it’s mostly to illustrate how arresting it is. I had never done that before, and I never did it again, and when the words came out of my mouth I felt my heart just stop—but it was better that than not read it through to the end.
Anyway, the point is, I reread it over the last couple of days.
The Merro Tree is the story of Mikk of the planet Vyzania, a shy, self-hating, abused boy who becomes the galaxy’s greatest performance master (singer, actor, dancer, comic, instrumentalist—he can do it all) and, maybe more importantly, a self-confident man who can stand up for what he believes in. It’s a story about the nature of art and censorship and how the two intersect, and does so on a stage set out as a space opera. It stars almost entirely aliens (no human characters even appear until the halfway point of the story) and is nevertheless utterly relatable.
The basic premise is simple: Mikk is on trial for violating a galactic ban against performing a specific form of song-dance, and is trying to argue the ban as unjust. If he succeeds, it’s a victory for art as a whole; if he fails, the penalty is exile or death. This forms the frame narrative of the story, which weaves in and out with the life that has brought him to this point (a full 500 years time) and then, near the end—bursts free into an energetic present. The weaving of this narrative is, frankly, brilliant, because it manages to a) keep the frame consistent and chronological, b) keep the past consistent and chronological, and c) reveal things in each one that explains the meanings in the other in a fluid dance back and forth across that boundary.
It’s also a queer work in a time when there frankly wasn’t a lot of it. I didn’t find it because of that—although I did pick up a lot of queer books in my teens when I had first stumbled across some and was desperate for more, by virtue of finding a list someone kept on an old anime site and hunting all the works on it down—but I’d grabbed it off the shelf because it looked interesting. In typical style of the time, there was no mention of the queerness on the cover in any form (hence why I had to find a list for the others), so instead I got to stumble over it in a confused joy. The protagonist is pan or bisexual, in love with another male character (who is also a snake alien! Which, I mean, great, I am frankly here for this), and is nonmonogamous in a way that the book celebrates rather than going for either the ‘cheating’ or ‘scandalous’ route. Mikk’s love for Thissizz overflows constantly throughout the story, but Thissizz’s wives and Mikk’s other lovers are also celebrated as valuable, neither one threatening the other.
It’s not a perfect book—it’s a first book and it reads as such; the pov switches back and forth mid-section numerous times, and there are a number of tropes (the grotesquely fat villain, for one) and prose style traits that are pretty typical of 80s-90s sci-fi. The opening is also a little rough and hard to get into, because the switches between past and present need to be set up before they can start to inform anything. But none of this gets in the way of my need to give it five stars for what it does do, let alone what it did specifically for me. This book was a huge part of why I started writing.
It is, unfortunately, out of print, and I wish very much that someone would pick it up and republish it, because I very much want more people to read it and want the income to go to the author. I still check bookstores for her name every time I’m in them, just in case. And I hope you’ll seek it out anyway used.
It’s a book that deserves reading.