Excerpt from Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 288 pages
    Apr 2009, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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If I was careful not to bring myself to my mother’s attention I had nothing to fear. Sometimes, as I grew towards womanhood, she spoke to me kindly enough. And there were a lot of women there who loved me, and women who flattered me, and old Vestina to spoil me, and other girls to be a girl with, and babies to play with. And — women’s side or men’s side — it was my father’s house, and I was my father’s daughter.

My best friend, though, was not a girl of the Regia at all but the youngest child of the cattleman Tyrrhus, who was in charge of my family’s herds as well as his own. His family farm was a quarter mile from the city gates, a huge place with many outbuildings, the stone-and-timber farmhouse bulking up among them like an old grey gander in a flock of geese. Cattle-pens and paddocks and pastures stretched away back from the kitchen gardens among the low, oak-crowned hills. The farm was a place of endless industry, people working everywhere all day; but unless the forge was lit and the anvil clanging, or a drove of cattle was penned in close by for castration or for market, it was deeply quiet. Distant mooing from the valleys and the murmur of mourning doves and wood doves in the oak groves near the house made a continuous softness of sound into which other noises sank away and were lost. I loved that farm.

Silvia came to keep me company sometimes at the Regia, but we both preferred to be at the her place. In summer I ran out there almost every day. Tita, a slave a couple of years older than I, came with me as the guardian my status of virgin princess required, but as soon as we got there Tita joined her friends among the farm women, and Silvia and I ran off to climb trees or dam the creek or play with the kittens or catch polliwogs and roam the woods and hills, as free as the sparrows.

My mother would have kept me home. “What kind of company is it she chooses to keep? Cowherds!” But my father, born a king, ignored her snobbery. “Let the child run about and get strong. They’re good people,” he said. Indeed Tyrrhus was a trusty, competent man, ruling his pastures as firmly as my father ruled his realm. He had an explosive temper but was just with his people; he kept every feast day generously, with observance and sacrifice to the local spirits and sacred places. He had fought beside my father in the old wars long ago, and still had a bit of the warrior about him. But he was soft as warm butter when it came to his daughter. Her mother had died soon after her birth, and she had no sisters. She grew up the darling of her father and brothers and all the house-people. She was in many ways more a princess than I. She didn’t have to spend hours a day spinning or weaving, and had no ceremonial duties. The old cooks ran the kitchen for her, the old slaves kept the household for her, the girls swept the hearth and fed the fire for her; she had all the time in the world to run free on the hills and play with her pet animals.

Silvia had a wonderful way with creatures. In the evening, the little owls would come to her quavering call, hu-u-u, hi-i-i, and alight a moment on her outstretched hand. She tamed a fox cub; when it grew to a vixen she let it go free, but it brought its cubs round yearly for us to see, letting them gambol in the twilight on the grass under the oaks. She reared a fawn her brothers took on a hunt, the hounds having pulled down its mother. Silvia was ten or eleven when they brought the little thing in. She nursed it tenderly, and it grew into a magnificent stag as tame as any dog. He trotted off to the woods every morning, but was always back at supper time; they let him come into the dining room and eat from their trenchers. Silvia adored her Cervulus. She washed him and combed him, and decked his splendid antlers with vines in autumn and flower-wreaths in spring. Male deer can be dangerous, but the stag was docile and mild, far too trusting for his own good. Silvia fastened a broad white linen band round his neck as a sign, and all the hunters of the forests of Latium knew Silvia’s Cervulus. Even the hounds knew him and seldom started him, having been scolded and beaten for doing so.

Copyright © 2008 by Ursula K. Le Guin

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