Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is the author of three other books that we have either read, or read aloud, in out homeschool in connection with out history studies. Her historical fiction for middle grade readers is challenging, with complex characters and vivi depictions of time and place. The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile are set in ancient Egypt, and Moccasin Trail is a story of the American West and the trappers and adventurers who opened up the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Master Cornhill is set in a very specific time and place: London in 1665-1666. The Great Plague in the summer of 1665 drives eleven year old Michael Cornhill from his home with loving foster parents in London to live in the countryside with not-so-loving Puritan friends. When the danger of the plague dies down, Michael takes the opportunity to return to london, alone, even though he knows that his foster parents are probably dead. What he doesn’t realize is that the friends and neighbors that he relies on to take him in and get him started on a path toward a trade or an education are also all gone, victims of the plague. Michael finds himself alone, an orphan with no skills to sell and no money to keep himself fed and clothed.

The story is about how Michael finds friends who help him, how he manages to weather difficult circumstances such as impressment for the Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, and most of all, how he finds direction and a purpose for his life. The atmosphere and buildings and culture of seventeenth century London come alive in this beautifully written story, from the gangs of soldiers impressing all available men into the King’s navy to fight the Dutch to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the business of London is conducted in the nooks and crannies of the great church courtyard to London Bridge lined with houses and shops to the Great Fire itself in September 1666. Ms. McGraw makes history relevant and interesting to readers of the twenty-first century by following an eleven year old boy from 400 years ago as he finds friends and allies in the streets of London. I could imagine my children in Michael’s place, and although it was a dangerous life, Michael survives, by the grace of God and by the innocence and persistence with which he faces his new circumstances.

Ms. McGraw’s books are probably better read aloud to middle grade to junior high students, since she doesn’t pander to the controlled vocabulary or the push for perpetual motion and action in contemporary fiction for children. Motivated readers who enjoy history can read it on their own, there is a lot of period detail and slang that will trip some readers up and enthrall others. Count me in the enthralled group.

I looked on Amazon for a good nonfiction “living book” about the Great Fire of London, but I didn’t really find anything that looked very readable. G.A. Henty has a book about the Great Fire, When London Burned: a Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire, but I find his books rather hit or miss. Some are good enough, and others are too long, too preachy, and/or too slow, even for me. I recommend Master Cornhill for a good introduction to the time period and to the event.

Then, you could read an excerpt from Pepys’ Diary, where he tells about his experience during the Great Fire.

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Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 11-12, 2015:
1. I got a compliment on one of my grown children, something I knew but was glad to hear that others recognize.

2. I was asked to speak at a local homeschool “expo” in May and give a forty-five minute workshop on “living books” (like Master Cornhill) and reading aloud as the backbone of homeschooling. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to share my love of excellent books with an audience of new and sometimes struggling homeschoolers. My themes so far: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and “Build your family culture around books.”

3. I am learning the value and discipline of silence. Enough said.

4. Betsy-Bee will be sixteen years old tomorrow. What a blessing she is!

5. This blog post by Bible study leader Beth Moore: It’s Prayer. That’s the thing.

“It’s time we quit falling asleep in prayer. It’s time we quit practicing a prayer routine that bores us to tears. It’s time our quiet times ceased to be quiet. There are battles to be won. Works to be done. The kinds which only come through prayer, prayer, and more prayer.”

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