What the Crab Saw: Margaret Bechard, The Star Hatchling (New York: Viking 1995).
I had a feeling I might be in luck when I read the back flap of this book:
Margaret Bechard says: “When my son finished reading this book he said. ’Mom, my teacher says you’re supposed to write what you know.’
“’Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘Teachers told me that, too. What about it?’”
Basic story: boy meets alien when alien crash lands.
Expected twist: the “boy” has claws and the “alien” is human.
Semi-expected twist: the “boy” lives in a matriarchal culture in which males are the gatherers and carers; the girl has pretty much ignored all the survival lessons she was ever given and now has to dredge up what little she knows from her hindbrain.
Main plot: children learn to communicate, human child gets off planet where her emergency pod has stranded her.
Sub plot: the Indigenes are experiencing a population crash.
And of course it’s all in the execution.
If you are a fan of Karen Traviss's City of Pearl then the best way to imagine this story is Shan Franklind meets Arras when both are just on the edge of puberty. The two children never really learn to communicate fluently, but they do get some of the basics across once they stop treating each other like pets, or at least enough to make sense within each species’ cultural framework—and Bechard does a really good job of showing how muddled the result is. Shem (the alien “boy”) has a sister, Cheko, and Bechard uses Cheko to show how cultural arrogance can explain away any indications of sentience.
In the process of getting Hanna (the human girl) to the Clearing where a great meeting is taking place, all three of them acquire mutual respect—Cheko stops thinking all males are dumb, and finally Hanna gets to go home, rescued by the ship’s doctor who has come looking for her.
And no one solves the population crash.
This is where it really gets interesting and what lifts Bechard’s book head and shoulders above so many of the books I’ve read this past two months. In the course of the adventure, we learn a lot about how the People live in Territories, one territory per family, and protect them ferociously. We learn that the Families are endogamous, and when Shem meets Mika, a female from another—hostile—family, Cheko is less than amused, she has regarded Shem as her property. In the Gathering, the Families, mix, briefly, and Shem asks whether it was true that once families lived together. His Grandmother replies in the affirmative, and the book ends with his grandmother looking at Mika and introducing them to an old, forgotten word, “Friend” am Outsider who is like Family.
A bright, thoughtful kid should be able to read what this book never actually says: exogamy is good. Keep mixing,