Robin McKinley (’75, H ‘86) is a Bowdoin alum and Newberry Award winner. I discovered McKinley’s writing when at the college bookstore to buy, for my father’s birthday, Billy Watson's Croker Sack by Franklin Burroughs (an eloquent exploration of the tensions between human connections to nature, human relationships with creatures and human nature as hunters). There, I was captivated by the cover of McKinley’s book Deerskin: a finely sculpted stone statue of a swift hound with one paw on the seated woman’s leg, the other in her hand; the worried dog looks upward at her face, which is not visible to us. So I bought that book as well. Struck by the intensity of her writing, by the cadence of her mythical voice and by her recurring themes of connection between human and creature(s) and its role in recovery from profoundly damaging harm, I subsequently read (and reread) every McKinley story I could find, her latest being Pegasus. In these stories, her pitch perfect rendition of animal language is reminiscent of Meindert Dejong in Along Came a Dog. Themes of self-reliance and hard-won self-realization are central, first appearing in her Bowdoin Senior Honors thesis, Three George Eliot Heroines. Because where Eliot’s heroines remain helplessly trapped within their roles in society, McKinley’s heroines (and heroes) undergo transformative change of themselves and their roles, typically revealing hidden strength, potential and understanding. Transformative change is at the heart of her first published book, which was a retelling of the ancient tale of Beauty and the Beast (published three years after leaving Bowdoin); in that book she also establishes many of the other characteristics that weave through the fabric of her stories, including golden threads of intelligence, light, magic, metaphor and humor. In most of her stories, as in Beauty, the mother is elusive, the father is supportive (although not in ‘Deerskin’), the father’s power is challenged or lost, the siblings are complex and interesting and the relationships with creatures, as well as with a central, sometimes mythical creature/Beast, are pivotal.
Read the introduction of Robin McKinley at Bowdoin when she received her honorary doctorate.