Below the Root (Book One of the Green-sky Trilogy), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Snyder's "Green-Sky" trilogy was the second fantasy series I ever read. "The Chronicles of Narnia" came first; my fifth-grade reading book included a chapter from "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," which was so fascinating that I had to read the rest of the book to find out what happened next. And then I had to read the next book. And the next. And pretty soon I'd read the whole thing. "The Hobbit" was a year or two in my future, and "Lord of the Rings" (and, to be honest, the only way I made it through "The Return of the King" was by getting hold of an unabridged audiobook) a few years further yet, at this point.
I will, of course, review all of these books in due time.
"Below the Root," the first book in the Green-sky Trilogy, takes place on the planet Green-sky, home of the Kindar. Green-sky is a rainforest planet dominated by gigantic trees, called "Grunds," in which the people live, and "rooftrees," which form the canopy. The Kindar are vegetarians (though not vegans, as they eat honey) and live a life dedicated to nonviolence. One of the sayings central to life on Green-sky is "I shall not lift my hand to any other except to offer Love and Joy."
When the Kindar reach the age of thirteen, they are given their careers. Though saying that they are "given" their careers isn't strictly accurate. Their careers are assigned to them, but the children are asked what they would like to have as their career, and if their temperament and talents lean in that direction, that generally will be their assignment. However, there are exceptions, as our protagonist has just discovered.
The book opens just after the assignments are given out, and Raamo D'ok sits alone in the forest, stunned. He has just been told that he is going to become one of the Ol'zhaan, the rulers of Green-sky. He has retained some of the Spirit-skills that most children grow out of by his age, specifically pensing (telepathy), kiniporting (telekinesis), healing, and Grunspreking (affecting the growth of plants). He is aware that he has kept these abilities longer than average, but he cannot believe that his Spirit-skills are strong enough to make him an Ol'zhaan.
Raamo's selection as an Ol'zhaan leads him to make some disturbing discoveries about Green-sky. He discovers, for example, that he is stronger in the Spirit-skills than anyone else he can find, even among the Ol'zhaan. Upon digging farther, he discovers that the Spirit-skills are dying -- children are beginning to outgrow them earlier than ever. And not only are the Spirit-skills dying, but so is the Wissenvine. The Wissenvine was a native plant of Green-sky which was manipulated with Grunspreking into something else. It holds prisoner beneath its root the terrible Pash-shan, monsters with sharp teeth and claws that would otherwise be a constant threat to the people of Green-sky. Because of the threat of the Pash-shan, the Kindar never touch the ground of Green-sky. Instead, they walk along the branches of the Grunds and, if they have to travel farther than that, glide up and down through the space between the trees in a way similar to how flying squirrels travel, gliding on the wing panels of a garment known as a "shuba."
Adding to Raamo's distress, his sister, Pomma, is ill with something called "the wasting." The wasting has been with the people of Green-sky for a long time, but the disease gets worse with each generation. Originally, it was similar to functional alcholism. The berries of the Wissenvine have mild intoxicating properties, and early sufferers of the wasting were able to get through their days if they were dosed with Wissenberries. But now the wasting has taken on a fatal form, and it resembles a combination of severe depression and terminal alcoholism more than anything else. The sufferers gradually lose interest in all of the activities of life. They lose their jobs and stop eating, except for the Wissenberry. Pomma has all but stopped eating and only seldom goes to school. She may well be the next victim to die from the disease.
This is one of those books from my childhood that I remember with great fondness. In fact, to this day, whenever I see a passionflower, I think, "A Wissenflower!" And my rereading has not spoiled my memories of the book one bit. The world that Snyder has created is vivid and I have so many memories of the characters -- Raamo, Genaa, Neric, Falla (whose name, unfortunately, always reminded me of Falada, the horse from "The Goose Girl"), and, of course, Pomma and her pet sima (which I've always pictured as a lavender squirrel monkey), Baya.