Jackaroo, by Cynthia Voigt

This month’s article on fiction is about a short excerpt from Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt. Jackaroo, set in a medieval-Europe-like Kingdom (known as “the Kingdom”), is aimed at young adults. It follows teenaged Gwyn who tries to make a difference to how the people in her area live when she finds the costume of a mysterious outlaw known as Jackaroo, and decides to use the costume herself to take on the guise of Jackaroo. This is the first in a series of four novels set in the Kingdom.

The following excerpt is from a section of the story in which Gwyn and the son of a Lord are sheltering in a cabin following a blizzard, having been separated from the adults they were travelling with. This is before Gwyn’s discovery of the Jackaroo costume.

The Lordling sat at the table, turning the pages of the long book. Gwyn took up an armload of folded clothes to lay them out on the bed while she wiped down the inside of the first cupboard. Each cupboard had one shelf in it, so there was not much to carry. Moving behind the Lordling, she glanced over her shoulder. On the top of the page was a picture of three faces. Before she thought to stop herself, she spoke: “Those are the three men. From the hut.”
“Had they murdered us, this might have identified them, when they went to sell the book. My father wrote it down underneath their pictures.” His fingers pointed to a line of shapes. Underneath the faces and the shapes, other lines and waves curved. Gwyn stared at them until suddenly she saw what they were. She did this by a trick of mind, as if she were a bird seeing a flat landscape from above.
“It really is a map,” she said. She could identify the hills now, and a pathway among them; when she looked down on it as if from the sky she could see what it pictured. There was the dot where the men’s hut was, and forests spreading back over the hills.

What I’d like to highlight from the excerpt above is how the characters think about drawing and writing. The Lordling has learned how to read and write, and assists his father in mapping the land of the Kingdom but Gwyn has not learned to read and write or use maps. She realises how to use the map by comparing the map to what the land would look from above as a bird might see it. She thinks about the writing, on the other hand, as a line of symbols but does not know what they relate to or how they are used. They had sheltered in the hut of three men the previous night in the course of their travels carrying out a land survey. They had been suspicious of the men but had nowhere else to shelter. The Lordling’s father drew the men and made a note beneath it, knowing that the three men could not read, so that if the men killed and/or robbed them they would be caught when they tried to sell the book to someone who could read.

Then she realized that she shouldn’t be standing so close, gawking. She moved quickly away.
“I don’t mind, Innkeeper’s daughter.”
Curiosity brought Gwyn back to stand behind him. On the top of the map a cross was drawn, with shapes at each end. It wasn’t part of the map, at least not that Gwyn could remember. “What is that?” She pointed.
“The directions of the compass. N means north, S south, E east, and W west.
Gwyn stared at the signs. The river runs to the south of us, so I can see why it’s the curved shape, but that one for the west should be the north, because even if it’s upside down it looks more like the mountains.
It took him a minute to understand her. “No. They’re letters. They’re initials. I just named the letters. Listen: the letter N comes first in the word north, and E in east. Hear it? That’s S for south, and W for west. They’re just the initial letters.
“W doesn’t sound like west,” Gwyn pointed out. It didn’t look like west either, where the sun went down. It looked like upside down mountains. She wondered if he were mocking her. Sometimes the names of the letters don’t match their sounds but mostly they do,” he told her. “I have to go outside.”

Gwyn is familiar with the concepts of north, east, south and west but not with how they are written. She tries to match letters as symbols which share a similar appearance to what they stand for, causing her to suggest that W would be a more appropriate symbol for the north because it looks like upside down mountains and the north is mountainous. The Lordling tells her that letters don’t work like that and demonstrates that they provide sounds to words. However Gwyn points out that this is not the case for W and west. The Lordling concedes that they mostly provide sounds for words but sometimes they don’t.

This is an example of how fiction can be used to explore ideas. A writer does not have to argue for any particular conclusions. The excerpt above does not argue for any conclusion but can, for example, raise questions for people who thought they had been using a rule-based language system to derive meanings from experience and/or from symbols (aka abstract structure-based semiotics, or computational representation).

In my judgment Jackaroo is also a solid adventure story and, like other Cynthia Voigt novels, features interesting in-depth characters.

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