June 29, 2012
In Returning, Toronto author Suzanne Banay Santo uses a melodic, narrative voice to usher readers inside an old piece of folklore that may be familiar in scents and traces. Ultimately, the tale Santo unearths comes from a wisdom tradition distant from North American audiences, which she makes available in delightful descriptions of the setting and characters. The elements include: a folkloric crone figure, Baba Yaga; a young woman forced into an odyssey that she reclaims guided by her intuition (and a magic doll), Vasalisa; the deep forests and the Yaga’s decrepit house on chicken legs which form the setting for the journey.
Commanded by her oppressive stepmother to retrieve sacred fire from Baba Yaga, Vasalisa ventures with uncertainty into the mouth of the forest, with its dark and ominous grip. The Yaga is dangerous, fearful, but also wise. She besets Vasalisa with impossible tasks, like sorting poppy seeds from piles of soil. With trepidation, Vasalisa eventually succeeds in the tasks guided and reassured by the doll (given to her by her mother before she dies), and establishes her own estate in the forest apart from her stepmother.
Returning has a cinematic quality, like you almost want to read it aloud (or have it read to you). It conjures rich, sometime spooky, images. Many thoughtful questions arise in the simple paperback: How do we find our inner voices, intuition and creative capacity (particular after they have been dormant for one reason or another)? How do we acknowledge all elements of the life-cycle with grace? (The Yaga’s environs remind us readily of death...). How can we understand crone figures? What can be made of their dual nature, between fearsome challenger and sage? Some of the themes are familiar to North American audiences who imbibed Brothers Grimm or Mother Goose. Santo conveys that we have inner resources for new life paths, and it is never too late for self-discovery.
The paperback is terse, concise, and very accessible. As they link back to Santo’s other offerings – she is a long-time student of Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, an experience creative facilitator and meditation teacher – we can contemplate similar themes from this narrative as we do in other practices like meditation: intuition, authentic voice, detachment, beginner’s mind, aging and encountering life with grace. And the illustrations by Odilon Redon are beautiful!