We’ve all experienced rites of passage in our lives, and they are usually framed as celebrations. But is there another side to those rites — a not always celebratory one. It’s a side that Morgan Keyes explores in Darkbeast, her new middle-grade novel. We’ve got here to explain.
In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life. Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.
Keara’s story grew out of my own interest in rites and rituals, formal ways that we mark life passages. These ceremonies are important – they bind together societies, weaving individuals into the greater fabric of their culture. They help everyone – celebrants and witnesses alike – to join in a greater tradition, to be part of a greater whole.
And yet, rites of passage are not necessarily all good. Typically, people forfeit some of their individuality when they cast off their earlier, more carefree lives. They set aside some of their differences with authority; they accede to society’s demands. (Down the road, of course, they might regain their individual voices; they might work to change the system. But most children, in most rites, yield to the traditions of their people, suffering some loss of autonomy along the way.)
Certainly, my views about rites of passage were shaped by my own experience. I grew up in a Jewish family, but in the years before I turned thirteen, I had very mixed emotions about becoming a bat mitzvah. I didn’t mind the studying, but I fretted that it was “fake” – I wasn’t truly learning Hebrew and I wasn’t mastering the teachings of my people. Rather, I feared that I was just memorizing some passages so that I could put on a show. Ultimately, I decided not to go through with the ritual (although I changed my mind and became a bat mitzvah when I was sixteen, in a different congregation with very different rituals.)
My ambivalence directly colored the experience of my Darkbeast character, Keara. Keara is eager to take on the trappings of adulthood – she wants to wear women’s clothes and live in the Women’s Hall. She longs to be treated with respect, to have a say in important family and village decisions.
And yet, she knows that completing her nameday ritual will require a very real cost – the life of her closest companion, her darkbeast Caw. Keara fears losing the creature who has guided her, who has been her moral compass. She questions whether she’s prepared to live life without her darkbeast. Most of all, she wonders whether she wants to live in a world that requires the execution of darkbeasts.
Keara is forced to balance good and bad. She is required to grapple with the gift of ritual and the cost thereof. Ultimately, her decision has grave consequences for Keara, for Caw, and for their society.
Completing the darkbeast ritual would certainly not have been all good. Avoiding it is not all bad. But the complexities of accepting adult responsibility become the basis of Keara’s character in Darkbeast.