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Ursula K(roeber) Le Guin (1929-) - Sidelights

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Whether she writes within the genres of children's books, young adult realism and fantasy, or adult science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin is considered by many to be one of the most creative authors working today. She is best known for her fantasy fiction, particularly the acclaimed "Earthsea" books, but her science fiction novels have also won her a wide following. According to Brian Attebery, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Le Guin's fiction is extraordinarily risky: it is full of hypotheses about morality, love, society, and ways of enriching life expressed in the symbolic language found in myth, dream, or poetry."

Le Guin was born in 1929, to Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. Her father was a professor of anthropology at the University of California and her mother was a writer. Le Guin once recalled that their summer house was "an old, tumble-down ranch in the Napa Valley . . . [and] a gathering place for scientists, writers, students, and California Indians. Even though I didn't pay much attention, I heard a lot of interesting, grown-up conversation." She also grew up hearing a variety of Native American tales from her father and reading a great deal of mythology; she particularly liked Norse myths.

Le Guin has three older brothers, but she feels her upbringing was totally nonsexist, as her parents expected the same achievements of her as of her brothers. Her home was also nonreligious. As she once related, "There was no religious practice of any kind. There was also no feeling that any religion was better than another or worse; they just weren't part of our life. They were something other people did." Eventually, Le Guin developed to a strong respect for Taoism, the Eastern religion of acceptance and change. The impact of the Taoist text I Ching has influenced many of her books, and she published a translation of it, Lao Tzu: Tao The Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, in 1997.

Le Guin's books are also informed by her feminism and her progressive views about social relationships. Though her early works focused mostly on male heroes, she eventually began portraying women in central, actionoriented roles. The Left Hand of Darkness is set in a world where people have no fixed gender, but become male or female when they desire sexual activity. Le Guin has also dealt with issues of race—The Lathe of Heaven, for instance, has a romance between a white man and a black woman—and sexual preference. These aspects of her writing have been revolutionary in science fiction, often seen, as Book writer Ellen Emry Heltzel noted, as "a white, male enclave reflecting its original base of readers." In Heltzel's view, Le Guin "is sensitive to issues of race, class and gender and is among a generation of writers who have elevated the role of human feeling in the formerly hard-wired SF field."

As children, Le Guin and one of her brothers enjoyed Amazing Stories, a short-story magazine. She made her first short story submission at the age of twelve to the magazine, but the story was rejected. "It was all right with me," she once said. "It was junk. At least I had a real rejection slip to show for it." While Le Guin always thought of herself as a writer, after completing her bachelor's degree at Radcliffe, she decided to follow her father's advice and find a marketable career. She studied Romance languages with the intent of teaching and earned her master's degree from Columbia University. She was pursuing a doctorate in French and Italian renaissance literature on a Fulbright fellowship when she met Charles Le Guin. Both were traveling to France via the Queen Mary. "We had a shipboard romance and, as the French have developed bureaucracy into a way of life, spent our first six months trying to marry," Le Guin recalled. After returning to the States, the couple moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where her husband taught at Emory University and Le Guin worked as a secretary and wrote. She spent the next several years balancing part-time work, writing, and family, which came to include three children: Elisabeth, Caroline, and Theodore. The family eventually settled in Portland, Oregon.

During the 1950s, Le Guin wrote five novels, four of which were set in the imaginary country of Orsinia, but she was unable to find a publisher willing to take a risk on her unusual style. She finally turned to the science fiction/fantasy genre in order to get into print. Her first sale was a time travel fantasy to Fantastic Stories and Imagination magazine. Le Guin noted that developing a science fiction style took time: she called her first published novels "fairy tales in space suits." These initial works are part of the "Hainish Cycle" and branch off from a central idea: that humanity came from the planet Hain, which colonized several other planets and eventually became separated by a galactic war. The cycle includes Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest, The Telling, and some short stories.

In the late 1960s, editor Herman Schein of Parnassus Press asked Le Guin to write a novel for eleven to seventeen year olds. The result was the fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea. The book deals with the adventures of the apprentice sorcerer, Ged. Critics praised the novel both for its story and the complexity of Le Guin's created world, which consists of a chain of islands. Many compared Earthsea to J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and C. S. Lewis's Narnia. In Horn Book, Eleanor Cameron wrote: "To me, it is as if Ursula Le Guin herself has lived on the Archipelago, minutely observing and noting down the habits and idiosyncrasies of the culture from island to island.... Nothing has escaped the notice of her imagination's seeking eye."

Le Guin followed A Wizard of Earthsea with a darker novel set in the same world: The Tombs of Atuan. Tenar, its protagonist and her first major female character, is a young priestess who discovers Ged wandering through sacred places forbidden to anyone but the priestesses and their eunuchs. Tenar's life changes through this meeting; Le Guin once described the story as "a feminine coming of age." The Farthest Shore, for many years the last book of the series, "is about the thing you do not live through and survive," Le Guin continued. The plot concerns Ged as a mature wizard, who journeys with a young prince to the westernmost end of the world to discover why Earthsea is losing its magic. There, Ged meets his ultimate challenge. The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for Children's Literature, and in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Andrew Gordon called it "a novel of epic scope." Salon.com contributor Faith L. Justice noted of the "Earthsea" novels, "On the surface these are coming-of-age stories . . . but Le Guin's artful storytelling and complex underlying themes elevate the works beyond mundane fantasy and the young-adult audience for which they are intended." The characters learn "the need for balance—light/dark, male/female, action/inaction," Justice commented.

In 1990, Le Guin published a new novel in the "Earthsea" series, the first Earthsea novel to appear in nearly twenty years. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea deals less with the magic of wizards than the importance of everyday life. In the novel, Tenar, now a farmer's widow, finds a little girl who has been raped by her father and his friends and left to die. Tenar adopts the child and is eventually joined by Ged, who arrives drained of power and strength. The three form an unlikely family who battle an unexpected threat to Tenar's island home. "Tenahu is a book of great depth and subtlety, . . . confronting and altering the bedrock values of the old high fantasy on which the first Earthsea books were based," observed Jill Paton Walsh in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. "It rejects the male-gendered tales of heroism, and in their place builds on women's experiences as the benchmarks of virtue, courage, love. The damaged child is at the centre of the book, and the triumph over evil is hers."

Le Guin returned to the world of Earthsea with the story collection Tales from Earthsea and the novel The Other Wind. The former includes a tale of the origins of the magic school at which Ged studied, plus four other stories and a background essay on Earthsea. Tales from Earthsea "not only stands alone but also serves as an introduction to new readers," commented Jackie Cassada in Library Journal, and Chris Barsanti of Book praised the stories as "delightfully crafted mini epics." Though remarking that many years passed between titles in the series, Booklist contributor Sally Estes commented, "Le Guin hasn't lost her touch." In The Other Wind, a sorcerer's longing for his deceased wife starts to weaken the barrier between the living and the dead and causes other disruptions in Earthsea. "The first full-length Earthsea novel since Tehanu will leave its readers wanting yet another," praised Estes in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that while in Tehanu, "Le Guin rethought the traditional connection between gender and magic," in The Other Wind, "she reconsiders the relationship between magic and something even more basic: life and death itself."

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is Le Guin's first non-fantasy young adult novel. It describes the deepening relationship between two extremely talented but lonely, nonconformist teenagers, Owen and Natalie. Their relationship is jeopardized when Owen makes sexual advances toward Natalie. "Le Guin's admirers have objected to the didactic tone of this book, which is undoubtedly present as it is in so many other adolescent novels," related Walsh. "But the rage which is palpable in the book—alongside a lot of human tenderness—is not really against the corrupting pressure on the young to advance too quickly into their sexual adulthood, rather it is against all the pressures by which individuals in their glorious oddity and variety are crushed into a few standard shapes by a society that hates nonconformity." The Beginning Place, written a few years later, is considered by some critics a more successful novel. It mixes fantasy and reality in the story of two young adults who, at different times, discover a strange world on the borders of their dull suburb. Gordon believed "the achievement of The Beginning Place is its vivid, detailed realism, which brings alive both the plastic suburb and the haunting twilight land and makes us believe in the possibility of crossing the threshold between the two."

In the late 1970s, Le Guin started working in a new genre: children's storybooks and picture books. Leese Webster relates the story of a talented spider. According to Gordon, "The story shows Le Guin's style . . . at its best. . . . The message is clear: it is a parable about the artist and her craft." A Visit from Dr. Katz is a picture book showing how a sick little girl is amused by two kittens. Fire and Stone tells about a dragon who eats stones instead of people, while in Fish Soup, two adults have differing visions of the perfect child—and see their fantasies become reality.

Catwings and its follow-ups, Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, and Jane on Her Own: A Catwings Tale, feature the adventures of several winged cats and are perhaps the best known of Le Guin's works for younger readers. In Catwings, four flying cats—Harriet, James, Thelma, and Roger—escape city dangers to live in the country, where they are adopted by two children. New York Times Book Review contributor Crescent Dragonwagon wrote that Le Guin's "dialogue, humor, skill as a storyteller, and emotional veracity combine near-flawlessly in a story that is both contemporary and timeless.... [T]heir collective winged adventures, their looking after one another, and the understated charm of Ms. Le Guin's writing keeps us captivated." The cats continue to have adventures in the next several books; in Jane on Her Own, Jane travels to the city in search of new experiences. When she is trapped by a man who wants to exploit her by putting her on television shows, Jane must find a way to escape. Carolyn Phelan and Jack Helbig of Booklist praised Le Guin's "consistently catlike point of view" in a story dealing with "loneliness, belonging, and freedom."

A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, a stand alone book for younger children, looks at the issue of responsibility. In it, a young girl learns that her little brother has been taken by trolls, and she goes out alone to rescue him, taking only a toy red horse, a warm scarf, knitting needles and yarn, and a bit of bread. Once she locates the boy in the trolls' castle, she finds that he has changed: he now wants to become a troll. "The boy's desire is an old one," Michael Dirda explained in Washington Post Book World: "Is it better to be a happy pig or an unhappy Socrates? Most of us don't get the chance to be quite either." Dirda concluded that the volume "is indisputably suspenseful, thought-provoking, and beautifully illustrated."

In Tom Mouse, a picture book published in 2002, Le Guin introduces her readers to a mouse who wants to see the world. The mouse—named Tom—leaves his family to travel across the country by train. When a businesswoman takes up residence in the sleeping car that Tom had had to himself, he hides from her. Gradually, however, Tom realizes that he has been discovered and that the woman sees him as a friend. Tom Mouse was called a "celebration of the open road and the kindness of strangers" by a contributor to Kirkus Reviews. Writing for Horn Book, Susan P. Bloom thought "this tale of comradeship between two otherwise lonely globetrotters has an inviting freshness in its quiet telling."

Reviewers have praised the variety, force, and depth that Le Guin brings to her writing for children and for adults. "Hers is certainly one of the most powerful talents ever exercised in writing for the young," Walsh remarked. Le Guin believes that children's imaginations need to be nourished, and that fantasy plays an important part in their development. Gordon quoted her as stating, "I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1992, Volume 27, 1998.

Bittner, James, Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, UMI Research Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1984.

Bucknall, Barbara, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ungar (New York, NY), 1981.

Butts, Dennis, Good Writers for Young Readers, Hart-Davis (London, England), 1977.

Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1978, Volume 28, 1992.

Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins, Ursula K. Le Guin: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1983.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 45, 1987, Volume 71, 1992.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Cummins, Elizabeth, Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1990.

De Bolt, Joe, editor, Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Kennikat Press (Port Washington, NY), 1979.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, Part 1, 1981, pp. 263-280, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction, 1986, pp. 233-241.

Haviland, Virginia, editor, The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1980.

Kroeber, Theodora, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1970.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, Taplinger (New York, NY), 1979.

Reginald, Robert, and George Edgar Slusser, editors, Zephyr and Boreas: Winds of Change in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1996.

Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth, Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin, "Twayne's United States Authors" series, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995.

Slusser, George Edgar, The Farthest Shores of Ursula K. Le Guin, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1976.

Slusser, George Edgar, Between Two Worlds: The Literary Dilemma of Ursula K. Le Guin, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1995.

Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Book, September-October, 2000, Ellen Emry Heltzel, "Portland Trailblazer: Ursula K. Le Guin"; May, 2001, Chris Barsanti, review of Tales from Earthsea, p. 71.

Booklist, February 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan and Jack Helbig, review of Jane on Her Own: A Catwings Tale, p. 974; March 1, 2001, Sally Estes, review of Tales from Earthsea, p. 1233; June 1, 2001, Sally Estes, review of The Other Wind, p. 1798; February 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Reader, and the Imagination, p. 942.

Horn Book, April, 1971, Eleanor Cameron, "High Fantasy: A Wizard of Earthsea," pp. 129-138; October, 1971; June, 1973; May-June, 2002, Susan P. Bloom, review of Tom Mouse, p. 316.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of Tom Mouse, p. 260.

Library Journal, May 15, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of Tales from Earthsea, p. 166; July, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of The Other Wind, p. 130; September 15, 2003, review of Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, p. 91.

New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1985; November 13, 1988, Crescent Dragonwagon, review of Catwings; May 20, 1990, p. 38; October 15, 1995; March 3, 1996, p. 10; May 12, 1996, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, January 19, 1990, review of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, p. 110; August 10, 1992, review of A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, p. 70; October 5, 1992, review of Fish Soup, p. 71; September 25, 1995, Sara Jameson, "Ursula K. Le Guin: A Galaxy of Books and Laurels," p. 32; August 13, 2001, review of The Other Wind, p. 290.

School Library Journal, April, 1999, Anne Conner, review of Jane on Her Own, p. 101; May, 2002, Kathie Meizner, review of Tom Mouse, p. 120.

Times Literary Supplement, April 16, 1971; April 28, 1972.

Washington Post Book World, October 6, 1985; January 29, 1989; February 25, 1990; August 9, 1992, Michael Dirda, review of A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, p. 11.

ONLINE

Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (January 23, 2001), Faith L. Justice, "Ursula K. Le Guin."

Ursula K. Le Guin Web Site, http://www.ursulakleguin.com/ (February 24, 2004).*

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