In a Norse saga, there’s a mention of an Irishwoman captured and sold as a slave, Melorka. In Hush, Donna Jo Napoli takes Melkorka and gives her a book of her own.
Melkorka’s a spoiled teenager, firmly convinced of her royal superiority over the ordinary people and slaves, firm in her hatred of Vikings, and not very good at thinking before she speaks. Then comes her kidnapping, and her enslavement. Remembering her sister and her mother, she refuses to speak to her captors; listening to a fellow slave, she resolves to not speak to anyone. Her silence, flimsy though it is, becomes the only power she has.
It’s told in a first-person, present-tense narrative that works. Melkorka’s inner monologue reveals what she doesn’t say and lets us watch her adjust to her situation – and adjust again when it changes again. We see the helplessness of slaver, but also how the slave comes to have more strength than the princess ever did. It’s surprisingly gentle for a slave narrative, I think in part because it’s present-tense, but that gentleness is actually quite revealing. When Melkorka is experiencing something she can’t deal with, she thinks about it only obliquely, and that sideways experience is what we’re given.
The end is rushed and trite. Looking back on it, the beginning seems tacked-on, not really part of the story. But in many ways that’s part of Melkorka’s story; the experiences she has make her no longer the person she was. It’s a powerful book, which makes no excuses for the cruelties of the world but gives us a woman who can’t escape them, but can survive them.