Recently, I had the urge to revisit a book series I was very fond of in middle school. The Protector of the Small is a quartet of young adult novels written by Tamora Peirce about a young girl named Keladry of Mindelan or, Kel for short. Kel is the first female in her kingdom of Tortall to officially attend page training in hopes of becoming a knight. I talked a bit about the third entry, Squire, on the blog before; mainly regarding its fantasy trappings, rather than why I admired the series so much.
The Protector of the Small is made up of First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady Knight. Kel is the first girl to take advantage of a new law permitting females to begin page training. The law was created in response to a woman, Alanna of Trebond, who disguised herself as her brother in order to become a knight (The events of the Song of the Lioness quartet). It’s probably been almost a decade since I last read these books and in doing so, I’ve only just now come to realize why her story resonated so strongly with me.
I was Kel.
Obviously, I don’t mean literally. I’m not trained in swordsmanship and you’ll never find me within five feet of a horse, but I did play ice hockey for over fifteen years. I realize that doesn’t really make sense, so let me divert for a moment to tell a personal anecdote.
When I was ten I decided I wanted to play ice hockey. Before my mom would let me join a team, she insisted I attend a skills camp to learn the game and to make sure it was something I really wanted to do. She signed me up for a weeklong overnight camp at Penn State University. Penn State runs a lot of summer athletic camps, but at the time there was only one for boy’s ice hockey (a few years later, they did add a separate session for girls). Being the only girl at the camp, I was immediately “othered.” They weren’t really equipped to deal with me. I wasn’t allowed inside the boy’s dorm, so I had to stay in a nearby building with the volleyball girls. Because of that, when our group had to meet, we were required to do so outside in the courtyard, rather than inside the building. When we split into teams during off ice training, we played shirts vs. skins and there was always the call of, “where’s the girl? Which team is she on? OK, you guys are shirts.” And when we dressed for practice, the boys did so in the locker rooms, while I changed in the rink’s public bathroom, alone.
Unlike Alanna, who made it through her page and squire training while in disguise as a boy the entire time, Kel had to do the same work while also defending her gender. I know what that’s like. If you make a mistake, it suddenly isn’t because you’re still learning, it’s because you’re a girl. You not only have to keep up, but you’re also trying to prove you deserve to be there. That’s why I felt such a connection to Kel. It was the first time I had ever read a book that spoke so directly to my own life experiences. She had separate accommodations from her male counterparts. She had to train while ignoring the open stares of her classmates wondering what she was doing there. She had to tamp down the constant fear of failing because she’s a girl. Luckily for Kel, she had already trained in hand to hand combat and staff work and felt confident in her skills; I could barely handle a puck when I first stepped out onto the ice.
After Kel’s first year, the training master grudgingly extends her permission to return. She had survived and was one step closer to becoming a knight. For me, on the last night of camp, I went back my dorm to find it empty and locked. I tracked down a counselor who had to walk me to one of the administration offices. He tried to explain that I wasn’t able to get into my room, but the pinched face secretary looked down at me and said, “All the other camps are over; the only people who should still be here are the ice hockey players.” The counselor gestured to me and said, “She is ice hockey.” Like Kel, I had found my place.