By Anna Fienberg, Published 1995
A while ago on my birthday I went to several second-hand book shops and bought more books than I care to say. I bought Power to Burn by Anna Fienberg on a whim. The authors name sounded familiar (I later realised she wrote the Tashi books and Madeline the Mermaid which I loved when I was a kid) and the description on the back was appealing – there was magic, danger and plenty of female protagonists. Plus, it was in good condition and only three dollars. Bargain.
Roberto, a young boy living an ordinary life (too ordinary) discovers one day that he has magical powers that have been passed down from generation to generation, usually to women. These powers are not celebrated, rather they are feared and kept secret. His parents decide to send Roberto to his Grandparents in Italy so that he can learn to control his powers. Here he discovers he has a twin sister, Angelica, who also has the power. As she had shown the power from a young age, his grandfather decided that she would be kept away from him so as not to encourage his own magical abilities or infect him with hers.
Roberto’s narrative is interspersed with that of his aunt Lucrezia in the 1960’s. Lucrezia has always loved having magical powers, but her father forces her to hide them, just as he forced her mother to hide hers. When her boyfriend Fabio and his family has to leave town because his father has embezzled funds from his workplace, Lucrezia begs her father to let Fabio stay with them. They’re seventeen, they’re nearly finished school, she reasons, let him stay to finish his education. Her father refuses and the next day Fabio is burnt alive in a house fire. Lucrezia blames her father for not letting him stay with them. She runs away to Lemone where she grows in hatred and resentment for her father, intent on destroying him.
The story culminates with a final show-down between Lucrezia and Roberto and Angelica, as well as her father, their Grandfather.
A Power to Burn was a short read and easy one. On the surface. But as I was reading it, I kept noticing all these big, huge concepts about gender and sexuality that I hadn’t expected. I thought it would be a typical heroic quest story with magic and family secrets. And yes, it was that in a nutshell. But going deeper and looking at the characters motivations revealed a whole other set of interpretations.
At the beginning, Lucrezia is talented, passionate and full of love. She wants to enjoy life, she wants to savour every moment, and her magic helps her do that. But she is constantly being controlled by her mother and father each time she tries to express herself through magic. Whenever she tries to explain why she must use her magic, her parents give her a whole range of reasons why she should not. Her mother says, ‘[…] what would become of you? “the Weird Woman of Firenze” they’d call you. A witch. Who would want to be your friend? Or your husband? No man would marry a woman who could fly away from him. Put a spell on him. Be more powerful than him! Listen, I know. You’d be alone all your life.’
And her mother does know, because she has had to bury her own power so that her husband can be secure in his.
When Fabio is burnt alive Lucrezia falls into a rage and changes into a wolf, attacking her father. Her mother stops her by using her own magical ability. Immediately after, Lucrezia and her parents have a frank conversation. Lucrezia tries to explain how natural using magic is to her, how it belongs to her, not to her father. His response is, ‘[…] you are my daughter, and you’ll do as I say. Your mother tells me this isn’t the first time. Little magic tricks, little games, harmless things, she says. But look what happened tonight! Would you call that harmless? What would have happened if your mother hadn’t stopped you?’
Lucrezia keeps trying to explain. She says, ‘You’ve never trusted me. Never trusted me to do what I want with my life. You stamp on me and suffocate me before I even know what I think. But you won’t crush me like you did Mamma. Where is Mamma’s power? What has she done with her life? She’s just cooked your dinners and washed your clothes and run your errands. You think she’s ever done what she wanted?’
As tempers rise, her father delivers the final insult, ‘How could you ever expect to catch a husband?’ […] Do you think even Fabio, the son of a thief, would love you if he really knew you? Knew what an animal you could become?’
After this Lucrezia leaves and vows to never forgive him. Ever.
It is interesting to me that every time Lucrezia’s magical abilities are discussed, so is the possibility of her marriage and the unstated yet obvious sexual implications of this. Both these concepts - magic and sexuality - are hopelessly tangled together in her parents minds. For them, a woman isn’t supposed to be powerful, she isn’t supposed to be independent or in control of her own body. And for Lucrezia, both her magic and her sexuality are simply natural, wonderful parts of who she is. She experiments with both of them to different extents; she accepts both these aspects of herself and resents her parents from trying to force her into a mould she does not fit.
It is obvious from Lucrezia’s encounters with Fabio that she cares for him deeply and he her. It is also obvious that his death has struck her to the core and she has never felt this level of rage and grief. Whether he would have turned on her had he known about her powers is impossible to say, what is evident, however, is that Lucrezia’s father sees both his wife and daughter’s magical ability as a threat and he believes any future lover of Lucrezia’s will feel the same. The control her father exercises over her life is absolute. After Fabio’s death, Lucrezia accuses her father of being ashamed of her relationship with Fabio. It is interesting to note that both the magical powers Lucrezia possesses as well as her romantic relationship with Fabio cause her Father shame and are used as an excuse to control her further.
During the final showdown between Lucrezia, her father and the twins, Lucrezia says, ‘What could you know about my life? And don’t think I’m the only one. What about all those other women down through history, destroyed by men like Papa!’
Roberto, watching the exchange between father and daughter thinks, ‘I didn’t know who the enemy was anymore, or who was to blame, and I wasn’t sure that Lucrezia knew either. It was bigger than any of us, bigger than this room, or the mountain outside, and I saw us all as small beads in Nonno’s chain of history. An almighty shove from destiny, all those years ago, pushed us along, one by one, our shoulders relentlessly shoving the next over the abyss. But that is how my mother would see it. What about change, the future, the next minute? Couldn’t a lousy bead make some kind of decision on its own?’
This ultimate conclusion brings all these threads together and suggests the revolutionary idea that a woman’s suppression by the men in her life – both her father and husband – is damaging and wrong on so many levels. The story twists and instead of Lucrezia, the witch, being the villain of the story, the reader is forced to consider the fact that her Father has been playing this role all along.
This was an interesting book for so many reasons. It was short, it was easy to read, but underneath it all there was this strength, this burning reasoning carrying it along. I don’t know if it was my favourite book ever or even if I would read it again. But it was revolutionary in a way many books aren’t – it actually looked at big concepts about gender and equality without explicitly saying so.Best Quote: Witches, warlocks, gremlins, ogres – they’re just words, labels. Haven’t you noticed that when people are labelled, their faces disappear?