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|The Necessary Beggar
by Susan Palwick
Published by Tor, 2005
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
Then he said to his slaves, "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests." Matthew 22:8-10 (NRSV)
In Gandiffri, the Land of Gifts, there are two interlocking customs. The first is that all men must upon their eighteenth birthday spend a year as a Mendicant, a kind of holy beggar, who wanders about existing on the charity of others, to learn humility and dependence, and to teach generosity. The second is that those wishing to be married must find a Mendicant to act as their Necessary Beggar, and invite him to the wedding as the guest of honour. Gifts are given, not to the couple, but to the Beggar, and after accepting this hospitality he pronounces a blessing, and bestows forgiveness upon the couple and their family.
Timbor, the carpet merchant, has three sons. One awful morning Darroti, the youngest, is found with the body of Gallicina, the first woman to take on the role of Mendicant. Her throat has been cut. He is accused of murder and sentenced to exile in another world by the enigmatic Judges. But while they accept the judgement, his family is not prepared to abandon him, so his father and brothers with their spouses and children join him in exile. They find themselves in refugee camp in the middle of a desert, strangers in the strange land called Nevada.
Timbor and his clan try to come to terms with the loss of their homeland while adapting to life in a world they scarcely understand. Much of the burden falls upon Timbor's grandaughter Zamatryna, who is quickest to learn the language and customs of their new home and who must help the family find their way. After hearing tales of Gandiffri's customs, she begins to formulate a hazy hope: perhaps when she is old enough to be married, she can find a Necessary Beggar to forgive and bless her poor, grief-stricken family.
Palwick's tale is about being an immigrant, about North American culture as seen from the outside (with a mixture of bemused humour and horror), and about mysterious family tragedy. But ultimately it is about forgiveness. As in Shakespeare's comedies of reconciliation, discord and complication multiply until the end, when the truth is proclaimed, all hurts are healed, and a wonderful wedding takes place.
Christians will, of course, remember some other stories that end with a great wedding feast, to which "the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame" are invited. Palwick is an Episcopalian convert, and she works themes of faith, hope and redemptive love into her tale, though readers should not expect overt preaching or pat answers. There are Christians in this story (named Stan and Lisa), whose religious doctrines the Gandiffrians find rather baffling and off-putting. However, they do recognize the loving generosity displayed by Lisa, who makes a series of sacrifices to welcome and aid them.
This is a graceful, grace-filled book which will reward those who explore its quiet charms. (February, 2007)
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