Love and freedom in the Jane Yellowrock series
Recent conversation with a good friend about Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series led to this question: What do you think Jane values above everything else? My answer: independence. My friend’s: freedom. Not precisely the same, but certainly related, and the obvious connections elicited a brief but thought-provoking exchange about how Jane is consistently resisting various attempts at colonization (we both work on issues of race, gender, and culture, so this is a common topic of conversation for us). Beast, Christianity, Leo Pellissier, George/Bruiser, Rick La Fleur – many entities and ideologies challenge, even threaten, Jane’s independence and freedom, and they are frequently represented as a “chain,” a “binding,” an emotional enmeshing, or moral authority. Jane’s romantic relationships, especially, are complicated by issues of power that go beyond personal agency and control to the potential for annexation or assimilation into a new form. Given the fact that Jane is a Cherokee woman working in a largely supernatural community, the symbolism is both logical and provocative, investing the reader in Jane’s journey, and raising questions about how Jane can gain and/or keep the freedom and independence she values so profoundly
Note: Spoilers ahead
For those of you who have not read Hunter’s series, it focuses on Jane Yellowrock, who walked out of the woods of the Appalachian Mountains, appearing to be about 12 years of age, without any memory and only one word, dalonige i digadoli, which means “yellow rock” or “yellow eyes” in Cherokee. Jane is placed in the Bethel Nondenominational Christian Children’s Home for six years, where she has a difficult relationship with most of the other children, and at 18 (as she is perceived to be), she leaves to discover her past and undertake professional training in security.
When we meet Jane in Skinwalker, she is she is a tall and athletic adult, with long, straight black hair that she tends to wear either in a braid, a bun (especially when she wants to hide weapons in it), or straight down her back to her hips. She is strong, fierce, athletic, and unconventionally attractive, powerful but not invulnerable.
Jane has left her modest and isolated home in North Carolina to take a contract job as a rogue-vampire hunter in New Orleans. She has a few close relationships, but for the most part she is a loner, and she still has little to no memory of her life before she walked out of the woods in the body of a young girl. Her new employer is Katie Fontaneau, vampire madame of Katie’s Ladies, and Jane also stays in the small house Katie owns behind the professional establishment. Katie is a member of the New Orleans Vampire Council, under the leadership of Leo Pellissier, vampire Master of the City of New Orleans.
Jane is still recovering from being nearly beheaded during her last gig, and is not particularly fond of any vampires, even “civilized” ones. Although the vampires sense that Jane is not quite human, they do not know her secret: she shares her body, mind, and soul with a mountain lion named Beast. Jane is a also shapeshifter, and while she most often shifts into Beast’s form, she can also shift into animals of greater and smaller mass, including an owl and a basset hound (Beast particularly hates it when she shifts into the homely dog).
Jane is no ordinary shapeshifter, though. Beast is a real and independent entity that she incorporated into herself by accident (accidental black magic, to be specific) as a child, so she is literally two-natured, not merely dual-natured (this is an important distinction in the series). As a young child, Jane spent many years in her bobcat (We Sa) form, and at one point she fights with the larger mountain lion, unintentionally incorporating the cat into herself before Beast can kill her. Jane again lived in cat form for many years (her personal history dates back to at least the Trail of Tears), so when she returns to human form, she is at least a century older than the 12 years she appears to be. However, because she has been out of human society for so long, and because she has no memory of her life in cat form, she makes a very believable child, and has no idea she can even change shape until she leaves the Children’s Home and returns to the woods from which she emerged.
A good deal of Jane’s character development in the series is the slow uncovering of the memories she lost in her transition from Beast to human child before she stepped out of the woods of Appalachia and into a “Christian upbringing.” Working with a Cherokee elder, Jane begins to reconstruct her past, remembering her father, mother, and grandmother. She remembers her father teaching her about her ability to shift into other forms, and she remembers his horrific murder by white men, along with the brutal rape of her mother. Jane remembers that her grandmother (Elisi) was also a skinwalker, which Hunter characterizes as a Cherokee “war woman” or justice hunter.
At one point Jane realizes that at age five she participated, under the instruction and encouragement of her grandmother, in the torture and death of one of the white men who killed her father and raped her mother. This formative event, Jane begins to understand, has shaped what seems to be her innate pursuit of justice and her isolation from most of both human and supernatural societies. It also fires her Christian guilt and incites fear about whether she is living a morally upright life. Beast, on the other hand, is a strong maternal force who also encourages Jane to find a mate, and has no patience for being seen or treated as “prey.” Beast is big; Beast is strong; Beast is canny; Beast is, like Jane, used to being alpha.
Jane and Beast can be separate but together in what Jane refers to as her “soul home,” a cave-like place of consciousness that holds the secrets to Jane’s nature and, perhaps, her future.
Much of Jane’s present consciousness is characterized by a struggle between her Christian and Cherokee selves:
No wonder skinwalkers went crazy when we got old, if we carried that kind of thing with us, inside us. Vengeance and justice were what we did. It was what I was. That spiritual constraint and demand for justice was why I had become a rogue-vamp hunter. Was why I was so good at killing. Living with it had never been easy, but at least I understood more of who I was now, more of why I made the choices I made. And more of the guilt that rested in my heart, a guilt that was trying to reconcile the duties of the skinwalker with the rules of the Christian God. (Death’s Rival, p. 172)
In short, this is Jane’s dilemma, but in practice, it is an increasingly complicated and convoluted reality, catalyzed and confounded by the various forces that press on Jane, some of them benign and even desirable (attraction and love), others malignant (myriad enemies, including a liver-eater), and still others a bit of both (the powerful vampire, Leo Pellisier, who probably loves Jane but also wants to control and dominate her). While Jane has initially been hired to kill what she believes to be a rogue vampire, what she ends up having to kill is a Cherokee liver-eater, a being of black magic who may have begun as a skinwalker who combined his being with a vampire’s, and who has taken on the form of Leo Pellisier’s son.
It is one thing for Jane to kill rogue vampires, who represent to her an evil within the Christian ideology (they were created from Judas Iscariot). But in order for Jane to complete her contract, she must kill a being who was once of the People, a true ontological dilemma for her. And in the process, she is forced to face the grieving madness of Leo, and potentially expose her true nature to Rick La Fleur, the handsome and possibly dishonest police detective to whom she is becoming deeply attracted (and with whom Beast desperately wants to mate). And at the same time, Jane worries that the malignancy of the liver-eater represents her ultimate fate.
By the time Jane completes her contract, the Vampire Council is not ready to release her, and Jane is not ready to leave New Orleans, so while she is not technically an employee of the vampires, Jane becomes more and more enmeshed in the supernatural world that includes vampires, witches, and other beings, especially Leo and his enhanced-human primo, the handsome and debonair George Dumas, both of whom are very interested in Jane and her not-quite-human nature.
What makes Jane so compelling – the mounting ethical, moral, spiritual, ontological, and political dilemmas she faces – also translates into questions that implicate Hunter’s writing of Jane as Cherokee and the outsider-insider dynamic that winds through and around the series.
For example, the term “skinwalker” is most commonly associated with the Dine, or Navajo (and the Southwestern nations, more generally), and it was most recently popularized by Tony Hillerman. And even the Navajo skinwalker is an imperfect analogy, because the skinwalker (often male) is closer to the Cherokee Spearfinger, and Liver-Eater, both of whom are malignant entities that feast on children, in particular. What Hunter claims to represent is a “war woman” who can, as she grows older, become dangerously consumed by the dark magic she previously battled, and she insists that she has grounded this character in pre-Christian Cherokee legends.
Despite this mixing of terminology, Hunter’s books have been praised for subverting the “magical Indian” stereotype. But while I think Hunter’s portrayal is respectful and aims at accuracy (she often uses Cherokee terms and her Cherokee characters are not sentimentalized or exoticized), she remains as much an outsider to Cherokee culture as Jane is to the Christianized white society of the Bethel Nondenominational Children’s Home, and it adds another layer of questions around whether Jane can ever be truly free from some form of cultural assimilation or personal colonization.
These questions are also embedded in Jane’s character. For example, Jane’s Christian upbringing clearly did not respect her Cherokee heritage, and Jane is like many indigenous children who were removed from their families and raised in white society. One of the things that complicates her relationship with the vampires is that they also occupy an outsider status. However, like the white southern culture that attempted to colonize Jane via cultural and religious assimilation, the vampires, especially Leo, want Jane under their control, as blood-servant or in blood-bound service.
Jane even wears a collar of sorts that Leo has given to her to protect her neck from vampires and other predators and weapons. As George explains to Jane:
“The collar is composed of two layers, which may be worn together or separately. The lower layer is made of sterling silver over titanium, for better strength and protection than the collar you lost to his service. The upper layer, which attaches so”— he indicated a delicate latching mechanism—“ is decorative. Twenty-four carat gold rings with chocolate diamonds and citrines scattered across the surface. My master had it created especially for you so that you might wear it even when working in a formal gown and yet be safe.” (Raven Cursed, p. 219)
So the very thing that is meant to protect Jane is also a symbol of her relationship to Leo, a relationship that both frustrates and enchants Leo, who appreciates Jane’s independence and freedom, but would also like to be able to claim her (indeed, her submission would be even more valuable, given Jane’s strength). In fact, so much of the vocabulary of vampires evokes an idea of domination and annexation: claiming, marking, bonding, compulsion, blood-bound, blood-servant, etc. It is not enough to taste Jane’s blood (which he does early on, after she has been severely wounded), Leo wants full possession.
At one point Jane casually announces herself as Leo’s “Enforcer,” a position that traditionally requires a blood bond, which Jane has managed to avoid. In retaliation, Leo initiates a forced feeding, even compelling George Dumas to physically restrain her, which is an enormous betrayal of the growing friendship and romantic feelings between them. The binding is literally a way for Jane to be psychically chained to Leo, an extension of his power and authority – a violent act of colonization and an assault:
Leo’s wrist covered my mouth as I gasped. I breathed down the drops of blood and the magic, choking, feeling it hit my lungs and slam into my bloodstream, my jaws suddenly aching with heavy pressure, my fingertips burning, as Beast struggled to break free. There was nothing of compulsion in Leo, nothing of the painkilling laving of tongue that could have blunted the pain. Nothing of the mesmerizing ability that made the taking of blood pleasurable for the victim. This was control. This was dominance, not the reward he’d promised. If I fought, he’d rip out my throat. . . .
He smiled, just a bare curl of lips, his fangs hidden away. Beware when you claim a position of power in my territory, little Enforcer. With power comes both responsibility and cost. And sometimes sacrifice. By your own works and your own choices, you are mine. (Death’s Rival, p. 151)
Unbeknownst to Leo, Jane’s skinwalker nature means that she cannot be bound like other humans, but at a later point, Leo accidentally binds Beast, which is represented in the text as
. . . a silver chain that no one but Beast and I could see. It was in the place in my mind that Aggie One Feather called my soul home, and the chain was some kind of binding that curled from Beast’s leg across the floor to a shadow in the corner of my mind, a shadow that was Leo Pellissier, the Master of the City of New Orleans and the entire Southeast USA, with the exception of Florida. (Blood Trade, p. 3)
Most of Jane’s relationships with men involve some kind of “binding,” “chain,” or threat of assimilation into another form or nature. With Rick, once he is kidnapped and bitten by a wereleopard, Jane cannot have sex with him again without being turned herself. Rick who wears a tattoo of Jane’s cat, a tattoo that binds him through magic, suggests that they are natural mates, except that they cannot be together while Rick is “infected.” Jane’s jealousy at seeing him with another female binds her to him almost as strongly as her love for him, and neither can be fully ignored or healed. With George, his service to Leo, which technically becomes suspended, will likely always be a problem, not only because of George’s blood-bond with Leo, but also because Leo appears to be unwilling to let either of them go. Eli and Alex Younger offer her the emotional bonds of family, which require a sense of vulnerability and attachment that may require sacrifice in the future.
For Jane these relationships represent an almost impossible dilemma: she has so often been lonely in her life that these new relationships fill in a lot of emotional gaps for her. And yet, the men she loves, and/or who love her, also threaten the qualities of freedom and independence that have made her such a powerful weapon of justice and vengeance. And the emotions that drive her — her thirst for justice — becomes ever more complicated as she gains more understanding of the supernatural beings she previously judged as evil or as unChristian (the vampires in the series are born of Judas, amplifying the ambiguity of the Christian elements).
As Jane becomes less judgmental, she has the opportunity to understand her own complicated nature more deeply, but at the same time, she also becomes more vulnerable to those very forms of “otherness” that could alter her through domination, assimilation, or annexation. It is a seemingly unresolvable dilemma, and one that opens Jane up to the darker elements of her own nature (like the black magic that allowed her to subsume — to colonize — Beast). The break in her relationship with Molly, who in so many ways is like her sister, is an example of how Jane’s duty to justice can come at the expense of a loved one (Jane has to kill Molly’s sister, a witch who caused chaos and destruction through black magic). Her compulsion to do “the right thing,” whatever that is, almost costs her the closest and oldest relationships she has (with Molly and her two children, to whom Jane feels solidly bonded). It seems that Leo’s words are true: exercising free will requires sacrifice. And yet, not being free, or at least not believing herself to be free, seems an intolerable alternative.
It may be that the only fully functional relationship in Jane’s life is her relationship with Beast, a relationship that is weighed down by Jane’s guilt over colonizing Beast so many years ago. Beast and Jane are both alpha, they both require time in their own form and the dominance of that consciousness for any given time. As Beast says: Jane and tlvdatsi are I/ we. Jane and Puma concolor are Beast. Together Jane and Beast are more than Jane or Beast alone (Black Arts, p. 228).
At different points in the series, both Jane and Beast realize that if they separate they will not survive, that they are we/ us, I/ we. Together. As Beast tells Jane, Freedom is death now . . . Freedom was lost to me/ us long ago (Black Arts, p. 228).
Jane, who was marked early in her life by horrific violence =- against her parents and then by her and her grandmother, in vengeance — continues to struggle with the fear that the power that drives her to seek justice will ultimately destroy her. And the emotional reward that come from intimate relationships – friendships, cultural connections, romantic entanglements, even surrogate family connections – also make it more and more difficult for Jane to just pick up and drive away on her incredibly cool motorcycle (Bitsa).
And this may be the ultimate truth of the series – that Jane cannot be free, even as she resists being bound, claimed, annexed, colonized, and and potentially assimilated by yet another power. It is a condition that extends, perhaps even subverts, but does not ultimately transcend her life as a Cherokee woman who has suffered in myriad ways from violence, first from white men, then from other cultural “outsiders,” all of whom have a difficult and multi-layered connection to Jane. Is it a tragic outcome for Jane, or is it enough that she will always have Beast, and will continue to fight for justice and for her own truth, as they continues to evolve. Does Hunter’s creation of Jane as a Cherokee character who struggles with colonizing forces serve as yet another form of victimization, or does Jane become more powerful as a character than the conditions under which she was created? The series is far more complicated than I have been able to capture here, and the questions more numerous and intertwined. Which makes the series both compelling and thought-provoking, both on its own terms, and in terms of how we think about relationships in straight Romance, where traditional marriage is still so often the “goal” of the genre. How does the genre work (or not) to preserve and honor the heroine’s personal agency, and how do cultural values (ideals?) fit in to that work?