Thousands of years in the future, all the northern hemisphere is buried under the ice and snow of a new Ice Age. At the southern end of a large landmass called Ifrik, two children of the Mahondi people, seven-year old Mara and her younger brother, Dann, are abducted from their home in the middle of the night. Raised as outsiders in a poor rural village, Mara and Dann learn to survive the hardships and dangers of a life threatened as much by an unforgiving climate and menacing animals as by a hostile community of Rock People. Eventually they join the great human migration North, away from the drought that is turning the southern land to dust, and in search of a place with enough water and food to support human life. Traveling across the continent, the siblings enter cities rife with crime, power struggles, and corruption, learning as much about human nature as about how societies function. With a clear-eyed vision of the human condition, Mara and Dann is imaginative fiction at its best.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 22, 1919
Place of Birth:Persia (now Iran)
Read an Excerpt
The scene that the child, then the girl, then the young woman tried so hard to remember was clear enough in its beginnings.She had been hustledsometimes carried, sometimes pulled along by the handthrough a dark night, nothing to be seen but stars, and then she was pushed into a room and told, Keep quiet, and the people who had brought her disappeared.She had not taken notice of their faces, what they were, she was too frightened, but they were her people, the People, she knew that.The room was nothing she had known.It was a square, built of large blocks of rock.She was inside one of the rock houses.She had seen them all her life.The rock houses were where they lived, the Rock People, not her people, who despised them.She had often seen the Rock People walking along the roads, getting quickly out of the way when they saw the People; but a dislike of them that she had been taught made it hard to look much at them.She was afraid of them, and thought them ugly.
She was alone in the big, bare rock room.It was water she was looking forsurely there must be water somewhere? But the room was empty.In the middle of it was a square made of the rock blocks, which she supposed must be a table; but there was nothing on it except a candle stuck in its grease, and burning low ... it would soon go out. By now she was thinking, But where is he, where is my little brother? He, too, had been rushed through the dark.She had called out to him, right at the beginning, when they were snatched away from homerescued, she now knewand a hand had come down over her mouth, "Quiet."And she had heard him cry out to her, and thesudden silence told her a hand had stopped his cry in the same way.She was in a fever, hot and dry over her whole body, but it was hard to distinguish the discomfort of this from her anxiety over her brother.
She went to the place in the wall where she had been thrust in, and tried to push a rock that was a door to one side.It moved in a groove, and was only another slab of rock; but just as she was giving up, because it was too heavy for her, it slid aside, and her brother rushed at her with a great howl that made her suddenly cold with terror and her prickle.He flung himself at her, and her arms went around him while she was looking at the doorway, where a man was mouthing at her and pointing to the child, Quiet, quiet. In her turn she put her hand over his open, howling mouth and felt his teeth in her palm.She did not cry out or pull away, but staggered back against a wall to support his weight; and she put her arms tight around him, whispering, "Hush, shhh, you in must be quiet." And then, using a threat that frightened her too, "Quiet, or that bad man will come." And he at once went quiet, and trembled as he clutched her.The man who had brought in the little boy had not gone away.He was whispering with someone out in the darkness.And then this someone came in, and she almost screamed, for she thought this was the bad man she had threatened her brother with; but then she saw that no, this man was not the same but only looked like him.She had in fact begun to scream, but slammed her own free hand across her mouth, the hand that was not pressing her brother's head into her chest."I thought you were ... that you were ... " she stammered; and he said, "No, that was my brother, Garth." He was wearing the same clothes as the other one, a black tunic, with red on it, and he was already stripping it off.Now he was naked, as she had seen her father and his brothers, but on ceremonial occasions, when they were decorated with all kinds of bracelets and pendants and anklets, in gold, so that they did not seem naked.But this man was as tired and dusty as she and her brother were, and on his back, as he turned it to put on the other tunic he had with him, were slashes from whips, weals where the blood was oozing even now, though some had dried.He pulled over his head a brown tunic, like a long sack, and she again nearly cried out, for this was what the Rock People wore.He stood in front of her, belting this garment with the same brown stuff, and looking hard at her and then at the little boy, who chose this moment to lift his head; and when he saw the man standing there, he let out another howl, just like their dog when he howled at the moon, and again she put her hand over his mouthnot the one he had bitten, which was bleedingbut let him stare over it while she said, "It's not the same man.It's his brother.It's not the bad one.
But she could feel the child trembling, in great fits, and she was afraid he would convulse and even die; and she forced his head around, back into her, and cradled it with her two arms.
For days, but she did not know how long, the two children had been in a room in their own home while the other one, who looked like this man, questioned them.The other one, the bad man, and others in the room, men and women, wore the long black tunics, with red.The two children were the centre of the scene.
Table of Contents
On Wednesday, January 20th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Doris May Lessing to discuss MARA AND DANN.
Moderator: Welcome, Doris Lessing. It is an honor that you could join us tonight to discuss your new book, MARA AND DANN. Is this your first online interview?
Doris May Lessing: Yes, it is. I have never done it before. It is quite an excitement for me.
Jan from South Hampton: Was there a particular inspiration behind MARA AND DANN? Love your work, Mrs. Lessing.
Doris May Lessing: No, there was not a particular inspiration. The idea of a story, a very old story, a very classic story in European literature of two orphans who have to struggle against all problems and adversary -- this idea fascinated me, and as soon as I started to write it, it took me over.
Patti Padgett from Shelton, Washington: I am sincerely sorry you are not finishing up your autobiography because of strict British laws. Can it not be published in the U.S. without punishment? Your life is so interesting -- I want to know as much as you will let me! Thanks for everything, by the way!
Doris May Lessing: No, it is not a question of the English liberal laws. In the '60s, I was the typical '60s housemother to a lot of people, and it is difficult for me to write of this time because of them, because of what that particular audience would feel. Some are well known now. I have tried to think of ways to write about this period, and I may still try to do it. There is an essential point here. I talk in volume two about the growing point. This means a logical line in your life that you are following. What I was doing in the '60s was working this out and fighting for some very damaged people. So volume three cannot be as personal as the first two if I write it.
Nancy from Connecticut: Your work has gone from realistic to the fantasy realm in several of your novels, and now in MARA AND DANN. Why did you decide to leave this world for these imaginary realms?
Doris May Lessing: You see, I don't see them as nonrealistic. The first part of MARA AND DANN is set in a very terrible drought. And today, large parts of the world are afflicted by drought. The people living in these areas would not think of this as nonrealistic, believe me. For example, I was in Zimbabwe, and they have suffered many droughts. I was there at the end of the drought years, and I was with women who would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and they would walk four or five miles to a well and back again with a bucket of water with which they had to cook, and there was no water for washing. This is the reality of bad drought, and this is what I am describing in MARA AND DANN. This terrible poverty and people suffering is not imaginary, and you can see it if you travel to certain parts of the world or even parts of our own country that are not privileged. This book I describe, it is an adventure. This is not something new but an old form, an old form reworked. So I would be sad for people to think Lessing is off again to one of those labels -- science or space fiction. It is nothing of the kind. I am just telling a story, and there is really only one criterion for a story. Is it a page-turner? Do you want to turn to the next page? That is what you ask of an adventure story.
Kim from Lakes Entrance, Australia: I'm interested in your views on dreams and dreaming. In many of your books, you report your characters' dreams, and some entire books read like dream descriptions. How do you explain the phenomenon of dreaming, and why do you think humans have the ability to dream?
Doris May Lessing: I can't explain it, but my private theory is that we, the human race, are storytellers above all. We tell each other stories all the time, and at night we tell ourselves stories. Dreams are stories -- sometimes with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Some are like B movies. There is something mysterious about it all. MARA AND DANN draws on my early childhood, when I had a little brother who I absolutely adored. He was one of the great passions of my life. When I wrote the first part of MARA AND DANN, I plugged right in to my early childhood. I was dreaming episode after episode of the story until about halfway through, when the emphasis shifted.
Bill Parslow from UK: I've lived with and enjoyed all your books ever since I borrowed A PROPER MARRIAGE while picking grapes in France in 1978. I think your books have changed the way I think. So what do you think goes on when someone reads a novel? Why is it so important that we have "stories" about us, and do we suffer for their lack? (And does the medium matter -- is the TV enough?) I think it is a sense of wonder that's important -- but why? What's going on here?
Doris May Lessing: Well, these are some fundamental questions. About TV -- TV tells us stories. But the TV observer is passive and taking into the brain already created and imposed images. Whereas when you read or listen to the radio, your imagination is creating for you. That is a very, very different process. It is my personal belief that the children that have never been read to or told stories are very much impoverished.
JLM from Peoria, IL: The roles of the brother and sister are very traditional in their gender definitions. Tell us your thinking behind this assignment of male/female attributes.
Doris May Lessing: This is a society which has gone back to the basics. It is not a sophisticated society. In a limited society, the old gender roles are likely to operate. But I have to point out that Mara is a very strong character. I think that we often exaggerate how much the roles of men and women have changed. I don't think they have changed as much as we would like. One little example: There is a young women who has perhaps worked hard, done well, and has all kinds of possibilities in front of her, and she throws them all up or out because of the possibility of a man. I have seen this happen so many times in the last ten years. This is not what I approve or disapprove of necessarily, just what I observe. I think it is not so easy to change these very old emotional responses. In THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK I made this point. I had these very conversations between the women, who are supposed to be free women, but they are actually caught in old emotional patterns. This is such a large topic, I can't really touch on everything.
Janet Gicker from Eugene, OR: There is something I think might be of interest to you. The police here are cracking down on "anarchists." They raid my house at gunpoint because my 15-year-old son is a suspect in an anti-Nike protest where minor property damage was done. They spent seven hours hauling stuff out of our house, and guess what they took from my husband's library? His copy of THE GOOD TERRORIST! No kidding! Thanks for listening.
Doris May Lessing: [laughs] That is very funny.
Bo Jacobs from Louisville, Kentucky: Hello, Ms. Lessing. This is a great honor. Given the mythological framework of your Canopus books as a context, how do you view the role of DNA in the evolution of consciousness here on earth and elsewhere in the universe?
Doris May Lessing: Well, I certainly am being asked some nice simple questions! The role of DNA and the universe is a very large one. Our view of ourselves has been transformed in the last century, and I don't think we have begun to understand what the ramifications may be. There was a little paragraph in today's paper saying human cloning will probably be allowed. My feeling of quiet horror at this is described in MARA AND DANN, because in the book I have a certain race be descendants of clones. This is such an old theme in science fiction -- deliberate cloning to create slave workers. I would not be at all surprised to see it come into reality.
Jan Hanford from California: MARA AND DANN flowed so smoothly -- it was really captivating, and I loved it. Was it a more enjoyable book to write than usual? Are some books more fun to write than others?
Doris May Lessing: Yes, this was great fun to write. I loved writing it, except for the beginning, when I plugged deep into uncomfortable childhood memories. I was sorry when I finished it. The interesting thing is, a book can be hell to write, and you labor over it, but when it is all done, it is hard to tell a book that had been hard to write and one you have done easily. I don't understand this myself. My book called THE MARRIAGES BETWEEN ZONES THREE, FOUR, AND FIVE was a pleasure to write because I know I plugged deep into a subconscious thing. It became an opera by Philip Glass. I loved writing that book, but when I look at that and see my book called THE FOUR-GATED CITY, which was sweating blood to write, or THE FIFTH CHILD, which I loathed writing, it all doesn't make sense.
Fiona Kenyon from Montreal: Dear Ms. Lessing, do you ever reread your own novels? For instance, did you reread MARTHA QUEST before you began writing your autobiography?
Doris May Lessing: No, I didn't. I do reread my books, but usually from the point of view of the misprints that have gotten into books and have to be corrected. I am able tell the difference in my mind between what I have made up and what has actually happened. I have a very good memory for certain things, and I trust it.
Marilyn Seymour from Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania: Ms. Lessing, I'm very excited that you are participating in this online chat. Technology can be marvelous, as tonight's interview proves. However, do you see the technological influence on human relationships in any way responsible for the breakdown of society you so vividly portray in many of your books?
Doris May Lessing: Well, I see that we are at the beginning of this kind of technological influence. Take the Internet, for example. I know people who are so in love with the Internet, they can't get off of it. This is surely alarming. People expect us writers to answer things we are not equipped to. In the last 15 years, we have fax machines, email, Internet -- and they have transformed communication. Our minds will certainly be changed by this, but don't forget, they have been changed before. When the printing press was invented, in the course of two or three centuries, we lost our memories. Before we kept things in our minds. Then you could write it all down. You can still meet people, old men and women who are illiterate, and they have everything in their minds. They have the kind of memories that we lost. We take all of this for granted. We are so dependent on reference books and such. No one foresaw this, but it happened. What will happen to our minds now? I wonder.
Leslie from Ohio: My English class has just begun reading THE FIFTH CHILD. Do you have any advice for first-time readers of your work?
Doris May Lessing: An interesting thing about THE FIFTH CHILD. When I wrote it, it never occurred to me that young people would like it. For instance, in Italy the Italians set up a literary prize and called in novels from all over the world. The judges got it down to a final 20 and sent them to schoolchildren and asked them which they thought should win this prize. They chose THE FIFTH CHILD. Since then, when I go around lecturing and meet teachers and librarians, they always tell me how much the children like that book. Don't ask me why. Right now I am writing a sequel to it. This is actually because of the suggestion of my German publisher, because that book did very well in Germany. It was on their bestseller list for weeks and weeks. This one is called THE FIFTH CHILD IN THE WORLD, and all I can say is that it is a very sad story. I have finished the first draft and now am working on the second. Many people have said to me that my character Ben is evil. All I see is that he is a creature out of context, because he would have been perfectly all right on a hillside or in a savage group, but you put him in a middle-class family and he is totally destructed. So now I have become extremely sorry for this poor creature. Often people don't like sequels, so I am taking a bit of a risk. And now MARA AND DANN is being liked by adolescents. Sometimes toward the middle of writing it, I thought, My goodness, kids will like this, and in experimental tests, we tried the book out on young folks and they do indeed like it. This pleases me very much. I have gotten many letters over the years from librarians and teachers, and my reply is always the same -- that the things I have written that kids like were never written deliberately for children. Three of my short stories have been particularly liked by children. One is "Flight," another "Through the Tunnel," and also "The Story of Two Dogs." I didn't write them specifically for children, though. It gives me so much pleasure that young people like MARA AND DANN.
Marilyn Seymour from Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania: I've been a devoted fan since reading THE MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR many years ago. I was fortunate to hear you read at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York a little over a year ago. Do you have plans for another U.S. tour?
Doris May Lessing: I am not coming to the U.S. for a tour. I will be 80 this year, and I can no longer dash around the world like I used to. But next time I come, it will not be in midwinter. I am told it is so cold with you now.
KB from Boston: Mrs. Lessing, I've loved your work since I was a teenager (and think Nadine Gordimer got your Nobel Prize, but that's another story!). I recently reread THE MAKING OF THE REPRESENTATIVE FOR PLANET 8 and found it to be a very spiritual story. Were you greatly influenced by your studies of Sufism while writing the Canopus books?
Doris May Lessing: That particular book -- I don't know how much it was influenced by Sufism. When you study something for 30-some years, it is hard to tell. I can say that that book has in it the furthest I have gone on these particular lines. That was also made into an opera by Philip Glass.
Nancy Zaffaro from Oregon: What, if anything, has changed in the publishing industry since you published the Jane Somers books? Love your work, Mrs. Lessing. Thank you!
Doris May Lessing: What is happening, as you might know, publishing firms used to be small and independent and predominantly run by people madly in love with literature; now it is dominated by enormous conglomerates. This is very good for the big commercial books and established writers, but it is very bad for beginning writers, for because of the nature of their work, they will need time to develop. In the long run, this will impoverish literature, which is dependent on new lifeblood from writers who are not necessarily commercial at all. I am sorry, it is a big subject, and I can't deal with it adequately in a few words.
Dee Seligman from Austin, Texas: Dear Doris Lessing, this moment is one of the more exciting ones for my life, as I finally have the chance to connect with you personally after all these years of reading your work, thinking about it, and writing about it. You've influenced me in so many aspects of my life; I do consider you a teacher. Technology has brought us together finally. Thanks for trying out this medium. So, as a teacher, let me ask you: Where should the quest be now? And how has writing your autobiographies affected you? How has it influenced your fiction?
Doris May Lessing: I am not a teacher in the sense that you mean it. Autobiography affected my fiction? I don't think it has, because they are two completely different kinds of writing and things. I don't think I can answer what you ask. Thanks, though.
Leslie from Ohio: What other authors do you feel have influenced you the most?
Doris May Lessing: When I was young, I read everything there was to read -- all the classics, I mean. That was my education, really. I don't know which influenced me more than others. Perhaps the Russians: Dostoevsky, Chekhov. That is true of my generation and the one after; so many were influenced by this constellation of genius, and there hasn't been one really since, with the exception of Proust. And in passing, Proust would not now be published today because it took time to see -- as the books came out one by one -- the shape of them, the themes, the patterns. The accountants who run the publishing firms today would say, "Too long, too elitist," et cetera, et cetera. A great masterpiece would be lost now. It is true.
Cindy from Arcadia, FL: Is MARA AND DANN how you would imagine the end of this world and the return of the ice?
Doris May Lessing: No, not at all. As far as I am concerned, it could be the past as well as the future. There have been many ice ages in the past. There were perhaps great civilizations in the past that were demolished that we will never even know about. This is just convention that I am using to tell a story.
Moderator: What women in history do you most admire, and why?
Doris May Lessing: I don't want to specify individuals, because the women I admire are those that I see when I go traveling in poor countries. You see women bringing up children and making a good job of it on the kind of money that we would use to go on holiday or have a very good meal. I think these women have always been unsung and unheard of. If you look at them, you see the most astonishing feats of heroism being accomplished by them. In Africa you see women with nothing at all, but somehow they manage to bring up their children.
Moderator: What are your predictions for the future of women?
Doris May Lessing: I have no idea. I think there is one certainty: that we will go on giving birth to the world's population. I know some extraordinary scientific advances have taken place -- test-tube babies, for example -- but I don't think this basic fact will be changed.
Moderator: What three books by or about women have been most influential in your life?
Doris May Lessing: This is very difficult. There are so many. Olive Schreiner, a South African writer who came to London before the first World War -- her novel THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM is extraordinary. She was a very original thinker, a feminist. She was asking questions that I don't think people got around to asking until the '60s. She was a socialist of that kind and time. She wrote about things such as trade unionism, the labor struggle, and birth control. She was truly remarkable. Also Nadezhda (the word for "hope" in Russian) Mandelstam: She was the wife of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, and she wrote a book called HOPE AGAINST HOPE, a pun on her name, about the persecution suffered under poets under Stalin. It is one of the greatest books of this century, and I recommend it. She wrote another called HOPE ABANDONED. These two books together are extraordinary. Also a biographer, Claire Tomalin -- she wrote a book about Jane Austen called JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE, recently out. What is admirable about this is that we have been used to seeing Austen rather as a maiden aunt observing the world from a corner, but Claire puts her into the context of a great web of family relations of that time, a detailed society. Jane Austen was very busy indeed, working with friends, family, and children, and had a hard time -- there was never any money. There is a refrain throughout this book -- cousin Fanny died in childbirth with her tenth child last summer -- and a whole new picture is painted for us of this time. Really great detail in this book -- what people were eating, how they were dressing, how they traveled. It is a completely new picture of a lady believed to have never gotten dust on her hands -- which is very far from the truth.
Patti from Shelton, WA: You say you are not a teacher.... I recall when you were in Seattle a few years back -- you nearly growled that you were not anyone's guru, but my dear, you are, you know! You have opened so many persons' eyes as to how far one can go with the written word, to say nothing of opening us up to how broad our very thinking can be! A thousand thanks for being a "nonteacher" and letting us learn from you, anyhow.
Doris May Lessing: [laughs] Well, thank you. Thank you very much!
AB from Massachusetts: Mrs. Lessing, I was wondering if there are any current authors whose work you greatly admire. Thanks.
Doris May Lessing: Well, at the moment I am reading a great deal of biographies. We have some marvelous biographers at the moment. I was quite surprised to be told that this kind of biography is specific to Britain, this kind of literary biography. Perhaps the most brilliant is Richard Holmes's new book on Samuel Coleridge, called COLERIDGE: DARKER REFLECTIONS. And a lively book by Amanda Forman about the Duchess of Devonshire. It is a woman writing from a certain viewpoint, and once again the fine details she shares bring so much to a life. It is Forman's first book, and I am sure she will write many more good ones.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Doris Lessing! It has been a great privilege and a true pleasure. We wish you the best of luck with MARA AND DANN. Before you go, do you have any parting words for your online audience?
Doris May Lessing: Well, it has been truly a great pleasure to do this. I have never done anything like it. The idea of people from everywhere -- Australia, Paris, UK -- conversing, well, it is a wonderful experience. Thanks.