Timeline of Middle Grade Fiction 2016

1242: The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz. travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions, William, an oblate who is half-Saracen and half French, and Jacob, a Jewish boy with a gift for healing. These children may be saints, or they may be using evil magic to do wonders that will deceive the faithful. And the dog, Gwenforte, who once saved a child from a deadly serpent, may be resurrected, but can a dog really be a saint?

1606: Caravaggio: Signed in Blood by Mark Smith. For fifteen-year-old Beppo Ghirlandi, an indentured servant accused of murder, there is no one to turn to. The only person who will help him is the painter from across the piazza, the madman genius known as Caravaggio—-who, unfortunately, has serious troubles of his own.

1781: Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson. The third book in the Seeds of America Trilogy chronicles the adventures of Isabel and Curzon after the winter at Valley Forge.

*1812: The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford. Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault must find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. But they are in America, where the Americans have just declared war on the British, and the engine is a prize that all three countries will fight to own.

1816: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb by Patrick Samphire. In this steampunk alternate history sci-fi novel, the evil Sir Titus takes Edward’s parents hostage to help him find a lost dragon tomb—on Mars. The political situation in the background of the story involves the British Empire on Earth as they fight the Napoleonic Wars.

1825: A Buss From Lafayette by Dorothea Jensen. Clara’s town is excited because the famous Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette, is about to visit their state during his farewell tour of America.

1840-1877: In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall. Jimmy McClean learns about his Lakota heritage from his grandfather and from stories about the hero Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse.

*1847: The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby. Jacob Tibbs, ship’s cat, chronicles the sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, adventures of the sailors aboard the Melissa Rae.

1866: Makoons by Louise Erdrich. Makoons, an Ojibwe boy, and his twin, Chickadee, travel with their family to the Great Plains of Dakota Territory. There they must learn to become buffalo hunters and once again help their people make a home in a new land.

c.1870: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. . Faith Sunderly is a proper Victorian young lady who has always been told, and who believes, that she is inferior in every way to men. Her father, the Reverend Sunderly is not only a cleric but also a world famous paleontologist. Faith, too is interested in science and in anything that will impress her father and get him to pay attention to her, but when she begins to learn more about her father’s research, she also finds herself enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit that won’t let go.

1871: Cinnamon Moon by Tess Hilmo. Three children displaced by fires (The Great Chicago Fire and another in Wisconsin on the same day) must find a way to survive and thrive.

*1887: A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson. Eleven year old Rocco must survive on the streets of New York City after his Italian parents sell him to a padrone who uses him to make money as a street musician.

1892: The Crimson Skew by S.E. Grove. Third book in the Mapmakers trilogy. Sophia Tims is coming home from a foreign Age, having risked her life in search of her missing parents. Now she is aboard ship, with a hard-earned, cryptic map that may help her find them at long last.

*1909: The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katharine Woodfine. Mysteries abound in an early twentieth century London department store.

1910: Race to the South Pole by Kate Messner. Ranger of Time series. A time-traveling dog, Ranger, helps out during Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica.

1920’s: Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey. 10 year old Isabel is obsessed with becoming a news reporter in 1920’s Chicago, where gangsters rule and the Tribune is the paper of record.

1929: The Eye of Midnight by Andrew Brumbach. On a stormy May day William and Maxine, cousins who hardly know each other, meet at the home of their mutual grandfather, Colonel Battersea. Soon after their arrival, Grandpa receives a secret telegram which takes the three of them to New York City. From there, the story rapidly becomes more and more frenzied, dangerous, and desperate as the children try to rescue Grandpa, find a lost package, decide whether or not to trust the courier, a girl named Nura, and work out their own new-found friendship.

1929: The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Twelve-year-old Martha works as a maid in the New York City mansion of the wealthy Sewell family. The other servants say Rose Sewell is crazy, but Martha believes that the paintings in the Sewell’s gallery contain a hidden message about Rose and about the other secrets in the Sewell mansion.

1934: Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg. Terpsichore’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting the family from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska.

1939: You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carol Boston Weatherford. Verse novel about the struggles and achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black air training program during World War II.

1940: Once Was a Time by Leila Sales. Time travel isn’t possible, is it? Or can time travel be the secret weapon that will allow the Allies to win World War II? And can friendship last over time when one friend gets displaced and can’t return to her own time?

1940’s: Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by Alan Gratz. 13-year-old Irish boy, Michael O’Shaunessey, becomes a spy in Nazi Germany.

1940’s: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepard. Winged horses live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital. But only Emmaline can see them.

1940’s: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox. During the Blitz, Katherine, Robbie and Amelie Bateson are sent north to a private school in Rookskill Castle in Scotland, a brooding place, haunted by dark magic from the past. But when some of their classmates disappear, Katherine has to find out what has happened to them.

1941: Bjorn’s Gift by Sandy Brehl. Sequel to Odin’s Promise by the same author. Mari, a young Norwegian girl, faces growing hardships and dangers in her small village in a western fjord during World War II.

1941: Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. Fourteen-year-old Junior Bledsoe struggles with school and with anger—-at his father, his insufferable granddaddy, his neighbors, and himself—-as he desperately tries to understand himself and find his own aim in life.

*1942: Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer. Gustave, a twelve-year-old French Jewish boy, has made it to America at last. After escaping with his family from Nazi-occupied France, he no longer has to worry about being captured by the Germans. But life is not easy in America, either.

1942: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Then, new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks.

1942: Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban. Ten year old Manami, a Japanese American girl sent to an internment camp with her family, clings to the hope that somehow grandfather’s dog, Yujiin, will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again.

1942: The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Marcel, a French boy, dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany’s occupation of France began the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, and Marcel bicycle may be useful for more important things than winning a race.

1942: Brave Like My Brother by Marc Nobleman. An American soldier in WWII England shares his war experiences with his 10-year-old brother via letters.

1952: Making Friends With Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood. Azalea Ann Morgan leaves her home in Tyler Texas to stay with her injured Grandma and help out for the summer. Although Azalea has difficulty making new friends, she and Billy Wong have adventures together in the small town in Arkansas where Azalea’s grandma lives.

1969: Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock. A North Carolina town hires its first African-American teacher in 1969, and two girls–one black, one white–confront the prejudice that challenges their friendship.

1973: Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson. Ben Hogan Putter just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world.

1975: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. If Raymie Clarke can just win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.

*1978: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. Zomorod Yusefzadeh is living in California with her Iranian family during the Iran hostage crisis. No wonder she wants to change her name to Cindy!

*1984: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

1989: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet. Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. Now, the family is headed for East Berlin, and Noah/Jonah mustn’t ask any questions.

2001: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Four children living in different parts of the country are affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

2001: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Actually set in 2016, this story is about three schoolchildren who are studying the events of 9/11 and who come to see its impact on their own lives.

2011: The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry. Two cousins on opposite sides of the Pacific experience the 2011 tsunami.

A few notes about this list:

Some of the blurbs are taken from Amazon or from Goodreads and edited to fit my list.

My favorites of the ones I’ve read are *starred. No, I haven’t read all of these. Links are to Semicolon reviews of the books that I have read and reviewed.

Some of these are straight historical fiction, and others are time travel or other fantasy books set mostly in the time period indicated.

Finally, we need more (excellent!) books for middle grade readers set in ancient times and in the middle ages or at least before 1800. I know of lots of older books set in these time periods, but not many are being published now. Too much research required? Or just a lack of interest?

Christmas in Canterbury, England, 1067

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Winston Mawdsley Graham was twentieth century British novelist best known for his series of Poldark novels, set in the late eighteenth century, just after end of the American Revolution or War for Independence. The series takes place in Cornwall, and the protagonist and eponymous hero is a former soldier in the British army in America who comes home to find the girl he left behind, Elizabeth, engaged to be married to his richer cousin, Francis. Ross returns to the land he has inherited from his deceased father and attempts to make a living and a life in the stark and poverty-stricken mines and fields of southern England.

After the first novel, Ross Poldark, published in 1945, there followed eleven more books in the series. The novels have been adapted for television at least twice by the BBC, once in the 1970’s and again (the first two novels with perhaps more to come?) in 2015. I saw the 2015 version which was what got me interested in reading the books. I must say that although I enjoyed the television mini-series, I wish I had read the books first. I think, having read the first book in the series, that the books will be the better stories, less sensationalized and more true-to-life. But now I have the actors, Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, in my head, and I can’t help but picture those actors as I read the story. Mr. Turner is certainly handsome in a tall-dark-and way, and I don’t mind picturing him. But I wish I had formed my own mental pictures first and then maybe super-imposed the actors onto my conceptions.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the first book, too, since I didn’t realize at first that the mini-series was based on the first two books. I expected certain events to unfold that didn’t happen. However, I’m now primed and ready for the next book in the series, titled Demelza. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. It’s reminding me, for some reason, of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps it’s the disadvantaged and maltreated hero, handsome and debonair, but also dark and tormented. Or maybe the emphasis on finding one’s love amid the toils and vicissitudes of business (Poldark) and politics (Lymond) is what binds the two series together. And the historical setting is vivid and well-drawn and researched in both series.

In case you should want to pursue the series of Poldark novels, the titles are:

1945 – Ross Poldark (original U.S. title: The Renegade)
1946 – Demelza
1950 – Jeremy Poldark (original U.S. title: Venture Once More)
1953 – Warleggan (original U.S. title: The Last Gamble)
1973 – The Black Moon
1976 – The Four Swans
1977 – The Angry Tide
1981 – The Stranger from the Sea
1982 – The Miller’s Dance
1984 – The Loving Cup
1990 – The Twisted Sword
2002 – Bella Poldark

I’ll probably be back with more Poldarkian observations soon.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. My own life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance? Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

Behold Your Queen! by Gladys Malvern

Behold Your Queen! is a fictionalized version of the book of Esther from the Bible. The novel is by Gladys Malvern, a popular writer of what we would now call “Young Adult fiction”. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s it was called teen fiction or just children’s fiction for older children. Many of her books are set in either Old Testament or New Testament times and are embellishments on familiar Bible stories. Books such as The Foreigner (about Ruth), Saul’s Daughter (about David’s wife, Michal), Tamar, and Rhoda of Cyprus were favorites of mine when I was a teen, and as I re-read Behold Your Queen!, I was again impressed with how Ms. Malvern was able to make the Bible story come alive and make her characters into real, breathing people.

There are a few deviations from the Biblical story. In Ms. Malvern’s book, Esther gives only one feast for the king, her husband and Haman, the evil Amalekite minister. At that first feast, she begs for the lives of her people to be spared and denounces Haman as the enemy of the Hebrew people as well as the enemy of the king himself. The author adds many details and descriptions of Persian court life and of King Xerxes/Ahasuerus and other characters and settings in the story. However, the basic story is the same, and the author has the Jews give credit to Esther and to “Almighty God” for their deliverance from the hand of the evil Haman.

I’ve posted before about the book of Esther. It’s a fascinating story. Chuck Swindoll wrote a book about Esther called Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity. I also have a couple of other post about Esther, Soundtrack for the Book of Esther and Esther, Illustrated. On the latter subject, the “decorations” in Gladys Malvern’s Behold Your Queen! are done by her sister Corrine, who was the illustrator for most (all?) of Gladys’ books.

I had a fascination with historical fiction based on Biblical narratives or set in Biblical times for a while when I was a teen, and Gladys Malvern was one of my go-to authors. Others who wrote these kinds of tales back in the early to mid twentieth century or before were Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, The Big Fisherman), Lew Wallace (Ben-hur), Norah Lofts (How Far to Bethlehem?), Elizabeth George Speare (The Bronze Bow), Joanne Williamson (Hittite Warrior), Marjorie Holmes (Two from Galilee), Patricia St. John (Twice Freed), and Frank G. Slaughter (The Road to Bithynia and many others). All of these stories were more or less Biblically accurate and made me think about the Biblical narratives in new ways as the people in them began to feel like real people instead of the flannel-graph one-dimensional characters of my childhood understanding. Whether it’s by means of historical fiction or the kinds of imaginative Bible study, I think it’s important that the people of the Bible be understood in this way as one grows and learns more about them.

Theodosia, Daughter of Aaron Burr by Anne Colver

My daughters have become engrossed in listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, and therefore I have listened to bits and pieces of it quite a few times over the past couple of weeks. (Warning: there’s some fairly foul language in the lyrics to the musical, as well as some lurid gossip about the main characters. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are quite funny and witty.) As one thing leads to another, I noticed this book on the shelves of my library and decided to read it. Theodosia Burr Alston was the only (legitimate)* daughter of Aaron Burr, who figures prominently in the life and, of course, death of Alexander Hamilton.

Anne Colver wrote this book for children or young adults, and it was published in 1941. The content is largely pro-Burr, although various characters can’t help speculating that Burr may have lost at least some of his reason and judgment after the duel with Hamilton. Aside from murdering Hamilton, Burr does do other fantastical and ill-judged things: in particular he becomes involved in a plot to invade Mexico and either to deliver it to the United States or to set up a rival empire with Aaron Burr as emperor.

We see Aaron Burr in the book from the point of view of the adoring Theodosia. Her love never fails. She always believes in her father, always expects the best of him, always stands her ground in defending him. However, Theodora’s husband, Joseph Alston, makes a telling statement about his father-in-law, which becomes the summary judgment of this take on Aaron Burr: “It’s hard to pity a man who can never admit he’s been mistaken. Your father has so much to make him a great man, Theo. He has brilliance and ambition and energy. And magnificent courage. But he has more pride than any man is entitled to in this world.”

And yet, Theodosia, and the readers of this lightly fictionalized biography of Theodosia Burr Alston are impelled to pity Theodosia and her infamous father by the end of the book. He almost became president, but he was also thwarted and insulted at every turn by Alexander Hamilton and his political allies. Burr lost his wife (also named Theodosia) during Washington’s presidency. He endured Hamilton’s calumnies for many years without reply. Then, came the duel, which Burr initiated, and the people of New York were so incensed at Burr that he felt he had to leave the country. And he owed so many debts that he fled with hardly any money to France where he lived in near-poverty. Then, after the Southwestern Empire debacle, Theodosia’s only child, a son named for his grandfather, died of a fever. And in the final tragedy of the book, Theodosia set out from Charleston to travel by ship to New York to visit her aging and still beloved father, but the ship she was on never arrived. Lost at sea.

I don’t really know what to think about Aaron Burr or his daughter. Anya Seton wrote a novel, My Theodosia, also published in 1941, which apparently paints a much different picture of Burr and his daughter. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but according to Wikipedia Seton portrays a traitorous and hugely ambitious Aaron Burr and again, an adoring and manipulable Theodosia. Burr offers his daughter the opportunity to become Princess of the Western American Empire, and young Theodosia has a brief romance with Meriwether Lewis, thwarted by her protective father. I prefer the Colver version of Theodosia and her father, but I’m not at all sure what is actually accurate or true.

And so the Burrs remain an enigma to some extent, but fascinating nevertheless.

*I went on a bit of a rabbit trail after reading the Wikipedia article about Aaron Burr, which stated that he had two illegitimate children with his East Indian servant, Mary Emmons. These two children, John (Jean) Pierre Burr and Louisa Charlotte Burr, grew up to become influential members of the free black community in Philadelphia, and Burr’s grandson, Frank J. Webb, wrote the second African American novel ever to be published. What would Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and Aaron’s Burr’s grandfather, have thought of his illustrious, infamous grandson and his progeny?

The Lark and the Laurel by Barbara Willard

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle, Book Five in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Checkmate, Book Six in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing, but I’m glad I did. I began reading this six volume series back in December 2013 with Game of Kings, the first book in the series. In this novel, a young Francis Crawford of Lymond, second son of a nobleman and landowner in fourteenth century Scotland, cavorts and carouses his way through wartorn southern Scotland and back and forth across the border with the enemy, England. Francis is a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue, but also a leader in war and romance, with an undercurrent of danger and subversive rebellion running through his character. He’s a medieval/renaissance Scottish James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one.

Queen’s Play and The Disorderly Knights deal with Lymond’s adventures in France and around and about the Mediterranean as he serves and politics the king of France, Henri II, the child Mary of Scotland, later to become Mary Queen of Scots, and the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaliers. After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and his second in command, Gabriel, both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you’re sure to be hooked by this time, and the fourth book is the climax of the entire story, with a rather infamous human chess game forming the centerpiece of the action. In Pawn in Frankincense, Francis Crawford is at his most vulnerable and his most deadly. The chess game in the seraglio in Istanbul is unforgettable.

Books Five and Six are the ones I read this month as I made my impromptu trip to literary Scotland. In The Ringed Castle, Crawford of Lymond has exiled himself to Russia, the backside of the world in this time period and the land ruled by Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, later known as Ivan the Terrible. In this half-barbarian court of a half-mad tsar, Lymond becomes the Voevoda Bolshoi, supreme commander and advisor to Tsar Ivan. In the meantime, back in England, Phillipa, the teenager that Lymond married in in Book Four, only in outward form in order to save her good name and protect her and her mission, is serving in the court of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and investigating Lymond’s mirky and mysterious past and family background.

Checkmate brings everything in the first five books to a satisfying close, well, almost everything. With a great many starts and stops, hesitations and false starts, triumphs and tragedies, Francis Crawford of Lymond finally meets his destiny, finds his true parents and heritage, and becomes the man he was meant to be. If you have never read these books and you want to, I would recommend that you plan for a marathon reading of all six books in order over the course of a month or more and that you have an English dictionary and a French-speaking translator nearby at all times. A working knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Scots dialect would come in handy also.

I have a theory that, after the events of these six books were finished, Francis Crawford of Lymond became the actual secret author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.