“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Amy Brown

Winter Of Fire (25th Anniversary Edition)
Sherryl Jordan
Scholastic, $19.00,
ISBN 9781775435983

I was ten when Winter Of Fire was first released, three years after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It was a little later that I read Sherryl Jordan’s novel: maybe in 1997, when Jenny Shipley became prime minister, or 1999, when Helen Clark was elected. The unforgettable protagonist, Elsha of the Quelled, would have been another model of female leadership in a patriarchal world. I wonder if 14-year-old Jacinda Ardern read Winter of Fire the year it came out? It might have been inspiring.

The cover is the same as the original, with the brooding blonde I thought was the epitome of beauty. The hood of her cloak covers the brand of the Quelled, a mark scorched into the forehead of every five-year-old enslaved by the Chosen. I had forgotten the sudden violence of the opening, four-year-old Elsha beaten by a Chosen man:

He came back, smiled, and wound my hair around his hand. Then he lifted me by the hair until my feet swung above my crushed cabbages. I was so angry and shocked, I hardly felt the pain. I lashed out with my feet. He gave a yell, and with the whip handle started hitting me.

With a three-year-old of my own now, I flinch at this description, wondering at the callousness of my teenage self for not being moved. Elsha’s stoical narration probably offered comfort; I would’ve been awed by her grit and audacity. At 34, I found myself fearing for her. “Don’t go with him!” I want to tell 16-year-old Elsha as a Chosen man, Amasai, says that the Firelord has summoned her. Rereading Winter Of Fire as an adult has exposed a conservatism and timidity I didn’t know I’d developed. It makes me want to be more like Elsha, with a spirit “all spit and fire”.

In the presence of the Firelord, Elsha doesn’t hold back: “I think you Chosen have it all wrong … I think your myths are wrong, your beliefs are a curse on the whole world, and your prophet is a liar.” Replace the lush pseudo-medieval setting with the United Nations Climate Summit in New York a few months ago and Elsha’s speech could be 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg’s: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.” It is arguable that every generation believes it’s facing the worst catastrophe. Even so, the impending threat of mass extinction seems an unprecedented global emergency, requiring radical upheaval of existing economic, political and societal norms. This is what Elsha achieves, from a position of abject subordination; despite, or perhaps because of, her position, she dismantles the patriarchy, abolishes slavery, and teaches her subjects how to warm themselves without needing to burn firestones:

The only reality is the warmth that you create. Create it in your mind, your body, and hold it there. You have far more authority than the wind or the ice. Your soul is free, transformed, strong. Your spirit is greater than anything in the world. So use it to command. To be in control. Be warm.

As a symbol of warmth in a frozen world, of potent and compassionate leadership, Elsha is a perfect ecofeminist role model. The source of power that secures her position as the first female Firelord, the ability to divine firestones, is less supernatural than evidence of her kinship with the land: “Sometimes … it seemed as if my heart beat with the firestone heart, and I felt a oneness with the rock.” In her attention to the symbiosis between human behaviour and the climate, Elsha is an especially prescient creation on Jordan’s part. The novel’s happy ending is not just due to the banishment of social inequality but to the healing of the land:

the earth itself felt warm with our joy. Laughing, I began to run. Then I noticed, in the clearer ground between the rocks, that tiny green plants grew. I knelt and looked at them, astounded. They were newborn trees.

The only element of Elsha’s story that reads awkwardly in 2019 is her sexualisation. Each male character she encounters propositions her. Luckily, most of their advances are welcome (“He had a handsome mouth, his lips well-defined … and his eyes were wide and candid. I loved their colour”). But, my stomach turned when the father-figure Firelord finds that she’s been sleeping in his bed, to warm him during his illness: “he slowly smiled, and an old spark lit his eye. ‘I’m sorry I missed that, Elsha.’” Although her encounters with men are fairly leery, the implication that Elsha enjoys her sexuality is redemptive.

As YA fantasy, there are moments of earnest cliché, with chapters titled, “High Dreams”, “Dark Realities” and “Pain, Love And Destiny”. But, there is also humour, sass and lyricism, which let me be immersed in the narrative just as I was 20 years ago. Again, I wanted to learn Elsha’s lesson “to do with the human will, and with warmth”. A lesson readers need now as much as ever.

Amy Brown is the author of three collections of poetry and four children’s novels. Her latest book, Neon Daze, a verse journal of the first four months of motherhood, was published by Victoria University Press in November 2019.

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