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Mission Child
Maureen F. McHugh
Avon EOS Books, 463 pages

Mission Child
Maureen F. McHugh
Maureen F. McHugh was born in 1959 in southwestern Ohio. She went to college at Ohio University, then got a master's degree in English Literature from New York University. After teaching as a part-time college instructor and doing temporary office work in New York City, she moved to Shijiazhuang, China, for a year. She moved back to Ohio, met her husband, and they now live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maureen F. McHugh Website
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SF Site Review: Mission Child

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A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

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Maureen McHugh is one of the finest pure writers working in the genre today, and her latest novel, on the whole, splendidly bears out this appreciation.

If you liked Ammonite and Slow River by Nicola Griffith, you may well fall in love with this book. However, fans of Maureen McHugh's previous books may prefer the first two thirds of Mission Child, which are sharply-observed, at times poignant, at times wonderfully ironic. In comparison, the last third tends to lag, and I found it aimless and veering dangerously close to the tawdry sentimentality.

The novel's opening showcases all the author's strengths as she brings to life the character of Janna, a mission child on a strange planet. A daughter of the world's native inhabitants, she has grown up within the confines of the small Earth mission. In quick succession, she is faced with the arrival of "outrunners," young unattached men from a nearby clan, a near rape, the shooting of her father, and the looting of the mission by the "outrunners."

Though McHugh handles Janna's experiences with unflinching lucidity and acute attention to her inner life, her account highlights an aspect I found rather jarring. Janna's actions and reactions tend to be throughout this episode those of a young American girl suddenly flung into this world. It is hard to believe that Janna could have been so thoroughly acculturated in a mission with only two offworlders present to counteract family traditions and deeper cultural attitudes. The mingled innocence and headstrong naïveté of Janna lack the foundation of earthy realism that might have been expected.

More disturbing, the nomadic clans that Janna springs from react to the arrival of guns in a way that feels utterly contrived for the story's needs. Earth history suggests that, while murder rates among hunter-gatherers are quite high, organized warfare is usually associated with a pre-existing social organization, most often built around the creation of food surpluses made possible by agriculture. (The organization required for some large-scale hunts, such as that of the American buffalo, can also serve as a suitable matrix.) But the clans are herders in a low survival margin environment. The instant re-invention of full-scale warfare (not just ritualized raiding) is extremely unlikely.

It feels as though McHugh is reworking old clichés about natives that have become so deeply embedded in the U.S. soul that the deeper an author digs for inspiration, the more likely she is to scrape off a fresh layer. That she intends the massacre at Janna's mission to demonstrate the effect of cultural disruption, so as to lay the guilt on the newly arrived technology from Earth, only makes it worse.

The book tackles colonial relations with a critical slant on futuristic do-gooders preaching appropriate and sustainable development. However, it's not enough to replace the 19th-century progressist cant about uplifting unenlightened souls by the 21st-century progressist cant, if the basic assumptions go unexamined. Especially if the author reuses a 19th-century scenario involving drunken natives with guns as if the result were a foregone conclusion, a singular event unrelated to previous patterns of behaviour. That's called cheap cynicism: give guns and drink to the natives, and slaughter has to be part of the package, right?

But I don't expect many readers to realize how patronizing even this generous, compassionate, and humane tale of colonialism actually is...

After the mission's massacre, Janna marries one of the survivors and joins one of the clans still trying to follow the old ways. But the Tekse clan has acquired guns and an appetite for power. In the ensuing conflict, her young husband dies and Janna ends up in a camp opened by the offworlders. There, truly alone, she is faced with finding out who she can be, without family or clan.

Almost unwittingly at first, she falls into claiming a masculine identity and she soon discovers what a difference it can make. It is slightly disquieting to realize McHugh is reprising some of the themes of China Mountain Zhang, whose protagonist was also trapped between two worlds, while attempting to cope with intimations of a different sexuality... Janna's cross-dressing is not really akin to Zhang's homosexuality, but it helps to underscore how out of place she feels, in a fashion perhaps more accessible to the majority of the book's readers.

She moves on to one of the new cities founded by the offworlders, striking an uneasy partnership with an old shaman who dresses in women's clothing. Together, they bring the old, comforting rituals to the former nomads now labouring in offworld shops and factories. Janna's discovery of the city, recurring confusion, and happenstance friendships make for some of the novel's best and most profoundly-moving scenes.

The undeniable truth, the burning sincerity of the novel up to that point fades in the last third. Still unsure of who she can be, poised between two cultures, between two genders, Janna moves on to a far part of her home world. Her adventures there, her slow unbending as she comes to find a new centre, are not entirely satisfying.

McHugh is presumably trying to say something about the encounter of different cultures, of a superior technological arsenal and of traditional ways. Janna is the human fulcrum where they meet, and where they can be melded together. The novel's final third attempts to show the advantages that balance the grief attendant upon being a go-between for very different cultures. Yet, beyond the melodrama of a plague and Janna's recurring angst, the story does not seem to be able to offer more than a certain species of resignation, if not submission to the inevitable.

Nevertheless, if some novels fade soon after they're shelved, Mission Child is a distinctive, uniquely personal story that will stay with readers much longer than the more standard fare. Maybe because it's infuriating in some of its casual assumptions. Or maybe because McHugh asks the right questions -- the ones that are so uncomfortable because there are no easy answers.

Copyright © 2000 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.


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