Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Redemption, Tonya Harding, and Chris Nuttall’s newest novel, THE FAMILY SHAME

with 2 comments

Redemption. It’s one of the strongest words in the English language, or at least it should be. It means to be saved from sin, evil, or error. Or to save yourself from the past consequences of bad or immoral actions…or, perhaps, it means this:

Living. Learning. And improving yourself, because you can’t live with the person you used to be.

My friend Chris Nuttall wrote a book recently based around this theme called THE FAMILY SHAME, set in his Zero Enigma universe. (I was one of his editors, so I got to see the book early and often.) In it, young Isabella Rubén has lost everything she once had, all because she trusted the wrong person. She’s only twelve, but the person she trusted plotted treason against the powers-that-be, and Isabella knew about it — and didn’t say anything to her father, or anyone else. Worse yet, she actively collaborated with this person to commit treason, mostly because she saw it as her only reasonable way to obtain political power due to what amounts to her family’s benign neglect of her talents (she’s a female magician and her particular family can only be led by male magicians).

the-family-shame-cover-revised

See, Isabella, in any other family, probably wouldn’t have done this. Every other family in the city of Shallot (where she’s from) picks their leader from everyone, male and female alike, based on a combination of magical and political ability. But her family, the Rubéns, don’t.

But she did it. She feels terrible about it, but she did it, and she can’t take that combination of deliberate non-action (in not telling her father or any of her teachers) plus actively aiding and abetting the treasonous older “friend” along the way.

And she is paying the price, as she has been exiled to Kirkhaven, an old, ramshackle estate about as far away from Shallot as you can get by horse. She’s also been told not to send letters to her father, mother, or brother, as she’s now “the family shame.”

So, not only has she lost everything — family, friends, wealth, schooling, political standing (which she did care about, even though she was only twelve as she was quite precocious in some ways) — she now has to deal with this ramshackle manor. Two adult magicians live there, Morag Rubén and Ira Rubén. (No, they’re not married to each other.) Morag is a cook, while Ira is a type of experimenter who admits he wants to find ways to make Dark-inflected spells work for good. And both of them, too, are exiles…

Did they want young Isabella around? The answer is a resounding “no.” But there she is, and now she has to figure out how to deal with them (not easy), how she’s going to continue her schooling independently (definitely not easy), and how she’s going to deal with the loneliness of this deserted, remote place (almost impossible). All while wrestling with the problems that brought her to this place, which she knows she created and cannot change.

When she manages to befriend a boy around her own age, Callam, her life starts to improve a little. But she has to keep the friendship secret, as she’s not supposed to leave the grounds, nor is he supposed to be on the grounds himself. (It’s a very innocent friendship, as is befitting for their respective ages.)

It’s getting to know Callam that helps to slowly but surely make Isabella realize just how badly she behaved before, and avow that she will find a way to do better.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so I’ll stop there with a plot summary. But I’ve given you this much because I wanted you to think about just how hard it’s going to be for Isabella to redeem herself in the eyes of society — and worse, how hard it’s going to be for Isabella, herself, to redeem herself in her own eyes.

Redemption, you see, is hard. People judge you by your past actions, and no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how much you might apologize, and no matter how much you’ve actually changed, there are still going to be some people who will hate you, and not give the new version of you — the better version, the one tested in the fire — the time of day.

We see that in contemporary life every day.

One of the most current examples is that of figure skater Tonya Harding, who’s now nearly forty-eight years old. But when she was only twenty-four — in 1994 — she somehow failed to stop an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, then not quite twenty-five. Kerrigan was hit on the knee by thugs sent by Harding’s then-husband, and one of those thugs was Harding’s bodyguard. Harding, herself, was sentenced to probation, given community service, and ended up being banned for life by the United States Figure Skating Association.

What Harding did back then was awful. That she had a rotten childhood (she truly did), that she came from abject poverty (she did), that her husband was mean and abusive to her as far as the public could discern, and that figure skating was her one gift (she was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, and was known for her athleticism, her jumps, and her footwork passages) may ameliorate things slightly, but the fact remains that she could’ve apparently done something to keep Kerrigan from being harmed. (I must say “apparently” because the facts are not completely in evidence. What we know is that Harding took a plea deal.)

But did she deserve to be ostracized the rest of her life for this?

Is the assumption going to be that Harding can’t learn, can’t find a way to be a good person, and that it’s supposedly OK for her to never use her one, true gift ever again, even to teach young kids how to skate?

See, that’s the quandary my friend Chris’s protagonist Isabella is in, too. Isabella is a gifted magician, but she misused her magic and hurt people. She knows it was wrong. She has apologized (as Harding, back in 1994, 1995, and 1996, apologized multiple times to the best of my recollection). But she was ostracized, cast out, exiled.

Isabella does find redemption, or at least finds a way toward redemption.

I would like to think that Harding also has found some sort of redemption, too. (Being on TV’s Dancing with the Stars surely has given her an athletic outlet, and may help pay for her son’s education down the line for all I know.)

But what’s sad about the quest for redemption, and what’s sad in both cases I’ve discussed here, is that some people will never forgive you no matter what good you might do. And no matter how much you might’ve changed. And no matter how much you might want them to forgive you…they just won’t, and you have to learn to live with it.

That Harding still has people, even to this day, leave feces (yes, actual feces) on her doorstep or rude messages on her phone or random people on the street swearing a blue streak at her, twenty-four years later, illustrates just how hard it is to seek redemption, even if you do it privately and out of the public eye.

You pay a heavy price, when you do something wrong, bad, or something that society judges immoral or flat-out evil.

But you still have to learn to live with yourself and your talents, and use them to the best of your ability. Which is what I think Harding is trying to do, as the older, presumably wiser version of herself…and it assuredly is what the young Isabella Rubén is trying to do in THE FAMILY SHAME.

I’m proud to have edited Chris’s new novel, and I hope you will find it a fun read, as well as an instructive one.

And personally? I think redemption is definitely possible. I just wish people would learn to see others for who they are today, not for how they hurt them yesterday, or how bad they behaved the day before that (or twenty-four years ago). Don’t forget it, no, as that’s revisionist history and unnecessary. But do forgive, if you can, at least as far as to say, “If I lived that person’s life, I can’t say for certain I wouldn’t have done the same things.”

That is the best way to be a decent human being, bar none.

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2 Responses

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  1. Only nit I have is that redemption starts with the person acknowledging that they did wrong.

    But there have been cases where the person “excuses” his actions without saying that he did something wrong and others expect everybody else to excuse him.

    In some of those cases, the excusers claim that if you don’t excuse him, then you don’t believe in redemption. 😦

    Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    May 19, 2018 at 8:50 am

    • I agree with you, Paul. You do have to acknowledge you did wrong, and you then have to seek redemption, both without and within, knowing that you may never manage either — but you can come close to both.

      Barb Caffrey

      May 19, 2018 at 5:28 pm


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