Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Scottish Prisoner – Diana Gabaldon

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The Scottish Prisoner is the first Diana Gabaldon book I’ve read. So it was tricky to get into the story which involves characters well developed in her many earlier books. And there was the matter of timeslip, mercifully I was clued into that one so I wasn’t entirely lost. The friend who assured me I would love Gabaldon’s historical fiction is herself writing an excellent historical romance. It includes the same type of timeslip–maybe a convention of the various historical fiction genres? In any case, I caught on and the book caught me so I tackled its 500+ pages in one afternoon/evening. Worth it.

The novel is a complicated eighteenth century spy thriller. Plot is tangled upon plot and Gabaldon skillfuly unravels the twisted yarns as she examines the minds and hearts of the men who march around foiling terrorists and getting themselves bloodied. There is a lot of physical violence, mud, dirt, horrible weather, lack of shelter, acute seasickness and smashed brains. But as much introspection, heartache, desperate attempts at honor and rough friendship. I had not encountered Lord John Grey before nor Jamie Fraser. They head a cast of very colorful characters who covet strange treasures found in a bog, write poems in the old language that are really code for uprisings, betray each other for the slightest reasons at every turn and rush into battle on any pretext. Grey and Fraser have a knotty history. They don’t like each other at first, don’t trust each other ever, don’t hesitate to risk their lives for each other and end up acting more like brothers–if exceedingly contentious ones–than mortal enemies. All for good reason, it turns out.

It’s a doable one-day read, if not a sensible one. I can sum the book up at this late hour by saying The Scottish Prisoner is a terrific story. It is complicated enough to keep you guessing and larded with so much period detail you can taste the mud and the flat ale. I can’t indulge myself in reading many more of Gabaldon’s hefty tomes in one gulp without abandoning the rest of life completely so I may have to wait before attempting another one. But I will explore more of them. 1760 was a very good year for a conspiracy plot and the adventures it took to spoil it. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in that world–a kind of timeslip for the reader who can travel back to the messy pages of history trapped in the mesmerizing pages of a book.

The Scottish Prisoner: A Novel (Lord John)   Diana Gabaldon | Delacorte Press 2011

The Maid — Kimberly Cutter

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 Jehanne d’Arc was an illiterate peasant girl, extremely pious, doggedly stubborn and blessed, or cursed, with visitations from heavenly emissaries who delivered verbal messages from God. Nearly half a millennium after it rigged a public trial and burned her at the stake in the market square in Rouen, the Catholic Church declared Jehanne to be a saint and martyr.

History, and Kimberly Cutter’s intimate novel The Maid: a novel of Joan of Arc, both tell us that Jehanne did lead French troops to significant victories at Orleans and Patay that succeeded in ending the Hundred Years War. She saw Charles the Dauphin crowned as the rightful King of France in the cathedral at Reims, as her voices instructed her. She rode into battle at the head of the French army for a brief year, changed history, was captured and spent the next year as a prisoner, in chains and on trial.

Jehanne often identified herself as La Pucelle, the maid, underscoring her virginity and dedication to God’s service. This was actually clever marketing for her time because unconventional women were discounted as witches and sluts and beneath contempt and, for Jehanne to succeed in her mission, she needed a platform and very good press. Even as a virgin who sent the camp followers packing and would not allow swearing in her presence, she was under constant assault for being unthinkable, unnatural, weird and possibly mad.

Her battle tactics were as unorthodox as her outlawed male dress but they were brilliant and effective. Her courage at the front of her troops in every sortie was legendary. And her victories gave her enormous credibility. The Maid shows us all this about Jehanne but digs into the pressures and the circumstances of her days, the hesitance to embrace a fate that seemed dangerous and improbable, her sheer helplessness to do anything more than follow her voices and beg for them to guide her.

The book is faithful to the considerable history we have of Jehanne’s brief life and her tumultuous times. Hers is not an unknown story – the long public trial and interrogations are documented facts that can be read in the original court manuscripts today. What is imagined are her reactions to the people and daily events in her life, the mystery of the disappearance of her sister in the middle of a war-torn France, the personal conversations with patrons, supporters, soldiers and even the weak-willed heir to the throne. She seems to have known always that her time would be short and her death the result of betrayal. She seems to have worked her legend in order to achieve her aims.

I confess I am fascinated by Joan of Arc and have been since the nuns told us her story in a bloody year of Lives of the Saints as our lunchtime read-aloud. She was anything but a wimp – this girl didn’t mince around in a little white dress avoiding patent leather shoes that might reflect her little white Catholic girl underwear to the salacious second-grade boys who were constantly on alert for a glimpse. She rocked it with swords, horses, tough talk and battles. She won. Nobody sent her home – she won. They had to burn her alive to stop her. That part was gruesomely fascinating and just proved how awesome the chick was. Forget stigmata and founding religious orders and healing the sick. Do not mess with Joan of Arc. Just. Don’t. We loved her.  

The Maid is less glamorous than Lives of the Saints filtered through seven-year-old imaginations but no less fascinating because the story it tells is real. Jehanne La Pucelle was devoted, savvy, stubborn as hell, a great warrior and a larger-than-life personality. She burned to do the will of God and in the end her passion consumed her as completely as any flames. She was twelve when the voices first spoke to her. She was seventeen when she defeated the English and crowned the French king. She was nineteen when she may have been assaulted in her cell, slipped back into the forbidden, protective male clothing that violated Church law, was condemned for it and marched to the stake.

She is still a gutsy and enthralling icon; her life is a gift to a writer with its quick pace, major events and dramatic conclusion. The Maid is a rich read if you like Joan of Arc stories and it will probably hold your interest even if there is no Sister Mary Scholastica reading aloud over the peanut butter and jelly in your past.

The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc    Kimberly Cutter  |   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2011

The Changeling of Finnistuath Kate Horsley

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Kate Horsley’s The Changeling of Finnistuath throws a harsh light on the quotidian of a dark time in Ireland, that period of western European history with scant records to document its cataclysmic changes. The changeling of the title is a girl-baby passed off as a boy to fool a half-wit goatherd father who has threatened to kill any more female infants in his half-starved household.

The baby is named Gregory for her father as his “first-born son” and nicknamed Grey. She is carefully minded by her mother and the close-lipped village midwife who keeps the secrets of the whole populace. Grey grows up wanting to be a warrior and learning the arts of a son, not a daughter. She thinks she is deformed and cooperates with hiding her true gender from her peers and the adults.

The small Irish village, really a scattering of peasant dwellings around a noble’s manor house, is a backward place of illiterate households, inchoate longings, garbled religion and pagan superstition. A traveling tinker brings trinkets to trade and sell and news of the outside world. A bailiff keeps careful records of the impossible debts people owe that keep them enslaved. The arrogant noble family rides roughshod over the countryside. Grey is eventually traded to the local priest in repayment of the debt for baptizing him/her.

The priest,  who claims bits of cow bone he collects are holy relics, begins the practice of offering Grey as a sexual object to elicit favors from high places. She is veiled and set naked for the noble’s sensitive son to encounter by a sacred spring for the priest’s benefit. She is traded to a botanist-monk from a nearby monastery, again for advantage to the priest. The monk deploys her in the monastery for the same purpose, only now she is passed off as a deaf-mute, blindfolded so she cannot see the monks who make use of her. Grey begins to respond to one anonymous monk whose emotional needs affect her as much as his sexual fumblings.

Plague hits Ireland and England hard and decimates the monastery population. The religious community has already been fatally weakened by a visit from a brutal papal emissary who threatens to close it down. Worse, the abbot is missing a Church treasure entrusted to him by the Avignon pope, a jeweled box stolen by the tinker, containing a handwritten account that could irreparably damage papal claims about the divinity of Jesus. As the abbot’s congregation lies feverish and festering with fatal sores, Grey discovers that her sympathetic lover has been the abbot himself and the power in their relationship shifts.

Pregnancy, plague, motherhood, travel, abandonment, sanctuary, searing loss and disillusion twist Grey’s tale this way and that. Her years as a mis-gendered child have both strengthened her and fatally severed her sense of self. Her child is the first anchor to an identity that allows her some peace.

But life was brutish, nasty and short in that dark age and no one escapes unscathed. The tinker reenters Grey’s life as does the noble’s son—both have a profound effect on her. She endures loss, dislocation, betrayal and confusion and finds solace and security that are tragically short-lived.

The Changeling of Finnistuath is a densely woven tapestry of history and human emotion. The account is disturbing for the inhumanity evidenced by the wealthy and powerful members of its cast and the intolerance of a nascent Catholic Church amassing power and riches as it crafts a religion to serve its worldly ends. Resourceful and resilient peasants adapt, thrive, fall from grace, survive and adapt again. Horsley’s writing is evocative and beautiful and her characters capture the human spirit in all its many guises. Even as it delivers a revelatory history lesson, Grey’s story and the events of her time, make you think about the legacy of that age in our own.    

The Changeling of Finnistuath: A Novel  Kate Horsley  Shambala  2003