Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book of BoyBoy is out climbing an apple tree, talking with the goats, when the pilgrim buys him from his master and takes him on a voyage to Rome. Along the way, they need to “rescue” seven relics in various cities. Boy is forced to wear the pack of stolen goods because they burn the pilgrim’s hands, but he doesn’t mind, since it hides the hump on his back. He is not happy about stealing, but the pilgrim always seems to have an alternate explanation that soothes Boy’s conscience. He suspects that the pilgrim is not who he appears to be, but then, neither is Boy.

This fascinating and mysterious trek through the landscape and religion of the Middle Ages unlocks pieces of a puzzle while wrestling with questions of appearance and reality. Villages are dirty and devastated by plague, but there are still poor people willing to share their last meals. The institutional church could be riddled with vice and deceit, but there are still believing priests who are kind and loving. The grasping and powerful may confuse and abuse Boy, but he manages to maintain his innocent goodness.

Who doesn’t love an adventurous road trip? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories. There is usually a main character and a sidekick, but in this case, the main character is the sidekick. A quest, a series of interesting settings and characters, dangers, mishaps and rescues, and all the while the interior journey as our hero learns along the way. Boy is a joyful and glorious creation.

Very highly recommended for upper elementary through middle school, The Book of Boy would also make an exciting family read-aloud. Some historical and theological explanations may be necessary for younger children.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

passion-of-dolssaThree sisters grow up without a mother however they can. Eventually, they settle into a town in southern France and open a tavern together. The oldest brews the ale, the youngest tells fortunes, and the middle sister, Botille, is a matchmaker. When their elderly neighbor sends Botille on a journey to bring back her nephews, they meet a dying girl in the woods on their return trip. Dolssa is being pursued by a devout friar who is bent on purging the church of all heretics like her, those who think that they can speak to God themselves, without the intervention of a priest. By taking her in, the sisters are putting themselves and their entire village in mortal danger.

Books with a medieval setting are usually fantasies, it seems. However, this is a novel based squarely on history, and disputed history at that, which makes it even more intriguing. Julie Berry, author of the riveting All the Truth That’s in Me, begins by stating that history is written by the winners, but every so often, the underdog leaves enough evidence that we can begin to piece together the truth. In 13th century southern France, the Catholic Church allied with the king of France in the first Crusade in which Christians sought to kill other Christians. It was called the Albigensian Crusade, and the heretics were later called Cathars. However, Berry recently studied manuscripts that show that the Cathars are a construct created by historians, a mythical synthesis of several groups of believers who threatened the power of the institutional church. Men and women like Dolssa, however, were just devout believers who lived simple lives and ministered to the people in their communities. Following Berry’s hypothesis, however, means that ordinary men and women were also working miracles in Jesus’ name in 1209 in southern France. Let the reader decide.

When I began this beautiful tale, I had the luxury of calling my brother, a medieval scholar, and getting a quick, off-the-cuff summary of the history of southern France from 1209 to 1410. However, the book was written for teens and can be read as a compelling, transcendent story of the effect that one pure, extraordinary life can have on everyone she touches. Berry includes copious back matter: notes, glossaries, and bibliographies. The characters are perfectly relatable for twenty-first century readers, and the terrifying realization that a human being can be convinced—out of fear or love of money—to abandon a friend or neighbor to an unjust death is a truth that we see repeated over and over throughout history.

I loved this book. That’s the best recommendation I can give. There are so many things to think about and discuss in its pages, but most of all, it was just a great story. Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, but I handed out several of the library copies to other people, whether they asked for it or not. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens“Oh, I must have some of the witch’s rampion, or I shall surely die.” And so, compelled by an overwhelming pregnancy craving, Rapunzel’s mother launched an evil pact: a baby girl in exchange for some bitter greens.

Author Kate Forsyth researched all of the Rapunzel stories told down through the centuries and re-imagined them in three women’s stories spanning the seventeenth century, folded into one another over and over. As the novel begins, we see the writer and socialite Charlotte-Rose de la Force in despair as she is forced to join a convent after being banished from the sparkling court of King Louis XIV in 1690. She refuses to believe that she will be there long, but as the dreary days go by she is befriended by one of the older nuns who enlists her help in the garden and spins tales of a young girl a century ago who was locked up in a tower by an evil witch who climbs into the tower using the girl’s long hair. These three stories of Charlotte Rose, the witch herself, and the girl in the tower are told alternately throughout this spellbinding novel. Tucked in between the chapters are snippets of the classic Rapunzel story as told by many authors over the years. The three stories come together startlingly, yet perfectly, at the end.

Historical fiction and retold fairy tales are two of my favorite genres, and Bitter Greens was a skilled example of both. Sensitive readers should take note that the author often states that there were three paths available to women in the seventeenth century: wife, nun, or prostitute (and I cleaned that up a bit). There is one particularly gruesome scene, but also a pervasive understanding of sex as a way to achieve goals, whether it is just food and shelter or social climbing. There are also beautiful romances, of course. Forsyth has penned an absorbing tale that will make twenty-first century women appreciate their freedom to follow their dreams while reveling in the eternal beauty of true love. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed as solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

ImageThere are probably very few of us who have never thought, “If only I could go back and change that one decision I made, my life would be so much better.” Perhaps it was something that happened to you or to someone you love, or maybe one choice that you would make differently now, if you only had the chance. But what if that one change in your life would cause you to miss out on many good things that happened later? Or what if the other choice led to tragedy instead?

It is not a spoiler for me to tell you that on the second page of Life After Life, Ursula walks into a café and shoots der Führer, for which she is immediately killed by his guards. A couple of pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, but the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies. A few pages later, Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, and is sleeping peacefully in her cradle while her mother munches on toast and sips tea. Confused yet?

It may be an oversimplification to call this “quantum physics meets historical fiction,” but that is probably the best way to describe this amazing new book by Kate Atkinson. Ursula lives through the first and second world wars, at least in some of her lives. She is always born into the same family on the same day, but a few key events may or may not take place each time, and each change brings a different outcome. Interestingly, all of the characters have the same basic personality and nature, even though their lives are transformed in many details. Ursula receives support from her wonderfully crazy Aunt Izzie, the black sheep of the family, and a very quirky psychiatrist who helps her to deal with the déjà vu and terrible premonitions that she begins to experience. Although reincarnation and Buddhism are mentioned here and there, I am not aware of any Buddhist teaching that allows people to relive the same life over and over in order to correct their mistakes.

Please don’t think that this novel, at 527 pages, would get monotonous. Quite the contrary! Atkinson does not bring us all the way back to Ursula’s birth every single time. Sometimes, she just replays certain key portions of her life, and sometimes she skips backward and forward in time. The reader is eager to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see where the changes were made and to find out what will happen to our beloved heroine this time. Ursula doesn’t meander through time forever, either. The ending is very purposeful and satisfying.

If you’re looking for something entirely new that feels warm and familiar, you will love this intimate exploration of one ordinary woman’s life in extraordinary times.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader’s copy of this book, lent to me by a librarian friend. My opinions are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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