I recently read The Blackthorn Key (by Kevin Sands, published by Puffin) and it made my nails curl inwards and sent every off every feminist alarm in my body. Here’s why.
Allow me a short summary: It is a story about a orphan and his best friend solving a code left by the protagonist’s apothecary Master. The riddle takes them across 17th century London where they have to dodge the Masters of the Guild and chase down several clues. A group is trying to overthrow the King. The clues lead them to the hidden treasures of the secret society to which his Master belonged.
What, then, could be so infuriating about this exciting middle grade adventure novel?
The characters are male, all male.
Sorry, not all. The author has condescended to toss in a few women as well (after all, they did exist in the 17th century!): a mother, a bunch of silly but delightful sisters, a pigeon, a fellow orphan (mentioned once) and a servant girl (also mentioned once).
The female characters are at most an unhelpful but lovely sidekick (4-yr old Molly + Bridget, the pigeon) and both are pretty much unimportant to the actual solving of the puzzle (the plot) and mostly act on male orders. When the protagonist meets the orphan girl he is worried about her future – if she does not get a job (obviously not as an apothecary apprentice – how should a girl be able to handle that?!) she will have to become a prostitute. At one point one of the boys peers into a room, sees it full of dolls and deduces that of course, naturally, it must be the girls’ room. Another room is not quite as “girly”.
As well, the phrase like a girl is used to portray a derogatory quality – a simile that always, always makes me want to punch something, hard – LIKE A GIRL.
The male characters, on the other hand, are scheming, accomplished and powerful, more often than not violent. It is customary for Masters to beat their apprentices (all boys, naturally) and a father regularly flogs his son. The men rule the Guild of apothecaries and there is a King on the throne. You get the picture. The exception to the violent Masters is the protagonist’s own Master, who never lays a hand on him.
Besides the characters’ lack of diversity, the society painted by Sands is patriarchal to the extreme and there is not one ounce of problematisation about this fact.
Sure, it’s set in the 17th century, it’s the way things were. Sure, I get the idea of getting boys to read by focusing on male characters (then again, girls have been used to reading about male characters since like forever).
But come on! It’s a book. For children. And more than anything else, it’s sad to see an established publishing house allow this atrocity to end up on the shelves. I thought we were further along than this.
Kevin Sands and Puffin: Do you even realise what message you send to young boys and girls reading The Blackthorn Key? Every single part of it manifests the idea that men are the competent ones rightfully in power and women are the natural angels of the house, cute and soft and quite useless besides for baking bread (yay for us!).
Surely, if Master Benedict can serve as an exception to the male violence rule there can be room for a female viewpoint that isn’t a victim, a domestic slave or a mere annotation? Not even one?
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.