Review: Into the Unbounded Night

Into the Unbounded Night, Mitchell James Kaplan. Raleigh, NC: Regal House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Historical fiction set in the mid-first century AD in the Roman Empire, spanning conquests from Albion (Britannia), Carthage, and Jerusalem, and the center of power in Rome.

Imagine a narrative that connects the characters of Vespasian, Roman general and future emperor, Saul of Tarsus, and Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who escaped rebellious Jerusalem and established a center that preserved Judaism after the fall of the temple and Jerusalem. Throw in cameos by Stephen the Martyr, Lucanus (Luke the physician), Caiaphas the high priest, and Josephus. Imagine a narrative that knits together the conquest of Britannia, the fires of Rome, Paul in prison, and the rebellion leading to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

This is that narrative.

What ties this together is a young woman of Albion, Aislin, mentored by the warrioress Muirgheal. When the Romans under Vespasian come, Aislin alone survives, raped and then discarded by Vespasian. Aislin vows revenge. With a soldier who chooses anonymous exile to death, she flees Britannia (Rome’s name for Albion) ending up in Rome. While in Rome, she survives on the streets, bears a mentally deficient but lovable son, and ends up in prison with the Apostle Paul for burning Rome. As the flames spread, she and Paul escape, she agrees to carry a special coin to the Christians in Jerusalem as Paul’s emissary, and meets up with Yohanan ben Zakkai, also traveling there. There she remains as Yohanan forms a rabbinic community while failing to temper the brewing rebellion that brings down the wrath of Rome

Somehow, Aislin survives it all.

The narrative offers a glimpse of how Roman, Jewish, and early Christian history interweave. And somehow, it works as the narrative moves back and forth between Aislin, Yohanan, Vespasian, and Paulus (as he is called in the narrative). The strangest part perhaps is the “Messenger” Azazel, rescuer of scapegoats and lost children. We gain a sense of the rival religions of the empire and the rival hopes and visions of the diverse peoples. We glimpse all these through Aislin as well, who never quite embraces anything besides the remnants of her own spirituality, yet is enriched and moves beyond revenge to love a strange child and a mystical rabbi. We also see the brutal exercise of Roman power in colonial conquest and political decadence. The account is bracketed by encounters between Aislin and Vespasian, who discovers that he can only conquer land, but not the human spirit.

I wasn’t sure this would all work, but strong and complex characters (even Vespasian), a first century world the author brings vividly alive and a plot that spans an empire all come together to spin a fascinating tale. Sometimes we find ourselves puzzling at cultures so different from our own. At others we forget that two millenia separate us from these all-too-human people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Week in the Life of Ephesus

A week in the life of ephesus

A Week in the Life of Ephesus (A Week in the Life Series), David A. deSilva. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A historical novel exploring the religious and cultural context of Ephesus during the reign of Domitian c. 90 AD.

The latest installment in the IVP Academic “A Day in the Life Series” acquaints us with the religious and cultural context during the reign of Domitian, around 90 AD. Like other books in the series, David deSilva uses a historical fiction approach centering around Amyntas, a prosperous Christian landowner in a context becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, who were considered atheists because they did not join in the worship of the pantheon of deities, from local deities to the cult of the Roman Emperor Domitian.

Amyntas hosts a gathering of Christians in his home. Some community leaders, who are also involved in the various religious cults, including that of the Emperor Domitian, for whom Ephesus has been designated a regional center, collude in a plot to trap Amyntas. They invite him to become a neopoios for the temple of Domitian. This is a kind of caretaker or trustee position, that on the face of it is an honor and would make him an insider. But it would either compromise him, or “out” him as a Christian, leading to his being ostracized, or worse. A close friend, and then his own son, are beaten up for their Christian beliefs.

A Christian friend from Pergamum suggests that he “go along to get along.” After all, “idols don’t really mean anything.” The contacts he would make, and the influence he would wield, could help the Christians. People from his house church disagree, and even ask Amyntas’ friend to leave. Amyntas struggles to decide. It becomes more complicated when a letter arrives from the John, in exile on the isle of Patmos.

Through the narrative and sidebars, we learn about the pantheon of gods, and emperor worship, and how Christians worshiped. An underlying theme is the power of imperial Rome and how that power was projected through the imperial cult, and how imperial Rome was a drain on the rest of the empire. Although set two millenia ago, the narrative raises questions about what Christian faithfulness looks like in relation to the competing claims of empire. We are forced to consider what we would do, or perhaps are doing, when faced with the conflicting claims to allegiance of empire, and the kingdom of God. David deSilva portrays the subtle guise in which the temptation may come, the allure of the inner ring, the justifications one may use, and the real consequences of Christian faithfulness many through the ages have faced.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Mirror & The Light

the mirror and the lightThe Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2020.

Summary: The third and final installment of Mantel’s historical fiction account of the life of Thomas Cromwell from the pinnacle of his own career under Henry VIII following the execution of Anne Boleyn, to his own downfall.

It has been eleven years since Hilary Mantel introduced us to the character of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and eight years since Bring Up the Bodies. The lasting impression this book leaves with me is the mix of knowing and unknowing that made up Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s “fixer” who both seems to grasp and be oddly oblivious to the danger of flying like a moth too close to Henry’s flame.

The book opens with Anne Boleyn’s death by the swordsman, after Cromwell had managed her trial and that of her adulterers to the conclusion Henry desired. He witnesses her death, and then goes to his breakfast and the pinnacle of his career. As Henry takes Jane Seymour to be his wife, he is elevated to Lord Privy Seal and Baron, and Vicegerent, along with retaining his role as Secretary.

The book traces Cromwell’s efforts to support an aging Henry VIII, suffering from an unhealed leg wound and growing waistline, as he desperately seeks to conceive a son with Jane. All the while, Cromwell is trying to fill the treasury through the dismantling of the monastic houses, implement reforms to decisively move the Church of England away from Rome, keep Henry’s European enemies at war with each other, and put down a rebellion in the north directed as much at his reforms as Henry, while also keeping Scotland at bay.

Cromwell the widower seems to have a soft spot for women. There is Bess, Jane Seymour’s sister, toward whom Cromwell is drawn, yet marries off to his son in a Freudian engagement process (to whom is she being engaged?). He protects the princess Mary, daughter of Katherine, persuading her to renounce the Church and declare loyalty to Henry. Again, Cromwell is suspect of wanting to marry her, interfering with her role as a pawn in diplomacy.

The unraveling begins with the death of Jane shortly after she gave birth to Edward. Once again Cromwell is tasked with finding a mate for the aging king hoping for additional heirs to ensure the succession. This is one of his greatest failure in the king’s eyes, due to the unattractive woman he found in Anne of Cleves, with whom he was unable to consummate the marriage. Increasingly as well, the reforms in the church brought growing resistance from traditionalists who gained Henry’s ear. The Bishop’s Book was countered by the Six Articles restoring traditional views of the mass, eucharist, and priesthood.

Mantel observes that Cromwell’s greatest danger was at his own table. Incautious statements are remembered. French ambassadors and trusted associates join with Bishop Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk in his arrest and interrogation in the Tower where he had interrogated others, with the techniques he had himself used. Indicted under a list of charges on which he was never tried, his last act was to draft the annulment papers for the King to end his marriage to Anne of Cleves and marry Katherine Parr. The fixer to the end, expendable after have completed his final act of service.

Throughout, it seems he was aware of his vulnerability, remembering how his father had beaten him and the image of his fathers unlaced shoes as he lay on the ground. Yet his gifts brought him closer and closer to Henry, until perhaps he believed in his own indispensability. Yet there are flashbacks throughout to the “indispensable” Cardinal Wolsey, whose fall he had witnessed as a young man. Did he believe his own gifts would deliver him? Or was he caught in the bind of his powers and his loyalties from which he could not step away?

As in her other novels, all this unfolds through dialogue, the most challenging aspect of reading Mantel. Other than the “he” which always denotes Cromwell, one has to keep careful track of who is speaking as well as when Cromwell as speaking, or merely thinking. We see the deftness of Cromwell, an iron fist in a velvet glove, in all the maneuvering in the court of Henry, the tension of a devotion both to Henry and to England. If one is willing to work through the inner monologues and outer dialogues, what emerges is Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell as a complicated man: internally motivated to competence and yet loyal, tender and ruthless, pious and a pragmatist, ambitious yet at least partially aware of the dangers of ambition, powerful and yet conscious of the ephemeral nature of his standing, seemingly knowing that Anne Boleyn’s end could easily be his own.

Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light

out of darkness

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, Petina Gappah. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A historical fiction narrative, told in two voices, of the attendants of Dr. David Livingstone, who with a large company carried the body of Livingstone from Chitambo, where he died, to Zanzibar, a journey of over 1500 miles and 285 days.

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer who offers us an African perspective on the last journey of Dr. David Livingstone, through the eyes and words of two of his attendants, part of the group that carried his body 1500 miles so that it might be returned to Livingstone’s people.

The story is told through Halima, who Livingstone had purchased in a slave market, assigned as a “travel wife” of Amoda, the leader of the party, with the promise of her manumission at the end of the journey, and of Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave trained in a mission school in India for mission work.

I suspect most people will much prefer the voice of Halima. She is practical and resilient and discerning in her insights into the character of others. She is a survivor with a sharp tongue. She reads the flighty character of Ntaoéka and the shifty and deceitful character of Chirango. When the men decide to transport the body of Livingstone back to Zanzibar, she is the one who figures out how to preserve his body by drying it in the sun, first removing the viscera, including the heart, which is buried in Chitambo.

Wainwright has the insufferable air of a recent convert, sanctimonious and judgmental of others, but, beyond his judgments, one who gave a meticulous account of the actual journey. His account is the longer of the two, covering the actual journey. In the process, we see his own hypocrisy, as he succumbs to Ntaoéka’s charms, and falls under the power of Chirango, who promises to “protect” their secret.

The narrative of returning this body, something unheard of, and questionable to some in the party, both accentuates the flaws of individuals, including murderous ones, as well as the resilience and determination of those who make this journey. While these aspects are in the foreground in much of the novel, they exist against the background of the slave trade, which determined a much longer route taken to the coast, one nevertheless lined with the bodies of dead slaves abandoned, tied to trees. There is also the quixotic quest of Livingstone for the source of the Nile, unsuccessful but paving the way for missionaries and then the colonial powers who sent them. This is the Livingstone who is an abolitionist, and yet subjugates Africans to his quest, including the buying of slave women to be “travel wives.” Then there are the missionaries who later on refuse to let Jacob Wainwright, who has converted a number of Africans, be any more than a lowly assistant.

Gappah spent more than ten years researching this work and provides a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, unusual for historical fiction. She offers a narrative at once riveting as a chronicle of a heroic journey of sacrifice, and revelatory, as an account of the impact upon Africans of the coming, in succession of the slave trader, the explorer, the missionary and the colonial interests. Ironically, in this instance, the Africans who embark on this heroic journey, for all their faults, show greater respect for the person and the faith of Livingstone than is shown for their persons and their faith by those who would convert and conquer them.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Between Two Worlds

between two worlds

Between Two Worlds (Lanny Budd #2), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1941).

Summary: Traces Lanny Budd’s life through two love affairs and his marriage to a rich heiress, during the 1920’s war weariness, good times, the rise of fascism, and the crash of the stock market.

The second of eleven Lanny Budd novels, this work picks up where the first ends, at the end of the Versailles Peace Conference. Budd, disillusioned by the self-interested carving up of the world and subjection of Germany, returns to his Riviera home to figure out what to make of his life. First order is to protect former German spy and school friend Kurt Meissner, to whom his mother Beauty is married, creating a studio for his composing, and a safe place to hide out. He also wants to lend support to his crippled friend Rick, as he tries to establish his life as a writer.

The novel spans the period from the end of the peace conference through to the crash of the stock market in 1929. As in the previous novel, Lanny seems to find a way to be present at all the big events, from the various international conferences to try to “remake” the world to meeting Mussolini, witnessing a speech of Hitler’s at the time of the Beer Hall Putsch, and meeting the famous dancer Isadora Duncan in her waning years. He barely escapes Italy with his life, defending a socialist when socialism was being brutally suppressed by Mussolini. And he is on Wall Street when the market crashes.

One development in his life is the beginning of his career as an art dealer, enabling him to have an income independent from his gun manufacturing father. That independence helps him rescue his father later on. The other is his love affairs, and eventual marriage to an American heiress. First is his affair with Marie de Bruyne, that ends tragically after a number of happy years together. The second revisited his old affair with Rosemary, now a bored wife, broken off for reasons of expedience. Then along comes Irma Barnes, a wealthy heiress. Despite the seeming indifference of both, and Lanny’s dubious background both as an illegitimate child, and a “pink” with socialist leanings, they fall in love, marry aboard ship, and arrive and are accepted by both American families.

Behind the narrative, which barely could be called a plotline, Sinclair portrays the corruption of both capitalism and fascism, and the attraction in this period of socialism. One wonders whether this reflected something of Sinclair’s own social conscience during this period (he later became increasingly disillusioned with communism). He also captures the desire of many to forget war, to indulge in high life and the social whirl, and forget the unresolved issues of Versailles.

The third novel in this series, Dragon’s Teeth, won a Pulitzer. In many ways, this novel felt like a “bridge” between the first and third. If there is any climax, it is the stock market crash of October 1929, with Lanny on hand just in time and flush with funds to rescue his father. Otherwise, this was an engaging but lengthy exercise in character development and historical narrative (with some social commentary thrown in). Perhaps the lack of focused development paralleled a time of frenzied malaise. He quotes Matthew Arnold in the epigraph to this volume from which the title is drawn:

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born.”

My hope is that the wandering will end with Dragon’s Teeth. I’ll let you know.

[My review of World’s End]

Review: World’s End (Lanny Budd #1)

World's End

World’s End (Lanny Budd #1), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1940).

Summary: First in a series of eleven novels, introducing the character of Lanny Budd, a precocious youth on the eve of World War 1, his German and English friends and their respective fates during the war while Lanny divides his time between his glamorous mother and artist step-father on the Riviera, and in New England with his father’s Puritan munitions-making family, ending up as a secretary to a geographer at the Paris Peace Conference.

Several months ago, I read and reviewed A World to Win, number seven in the Lanny Budd novels. There, a decidedly adult Lanny Budd functions as a secret agent for the president (Roosevelt) during World War 2. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Lanny Budd on the eve of World War 1. Raised by Beauty, his mother, he grew up in the mix of art and culture of Paris and the French Riviera. Although she was a preacher’s daughter, she was rejected by Lanny’s father’s New England Puritan family because she had posed several times in the nude for Parisian artists, and never married Lanny’s father. He acquires the artistic tastes and cultured manners of his mother’s circle, and the savvy of his munitions-salesman father. He also acquires two friends at boarding school, an English boy named Rick, and a German boy of high birth named Kurt. Like other pre-pubescent teens, their discussions range from philosophy to the mysteries of girls.

All this ends with the onset of the Great War. Rick eventually ends up as an RAF flyer, married, and wounded, never to walk without pain. Kurt fights for Germany and eventually becomes involved in espionage at war’s end that catches up Lanny. Beauty retreats to the Riviera, marry an artist, Marcel Detaze, whose greatest work comes after he is severely wounded, before he returns to the front, never to come back. Lanny has his first love affair with a girl destined to marry into an English house, and his first heartbreak.

After assisting his father for a period, learning to code and decode documents and meeting numerous famous figures, even Zaharoff, his father’s main competitor, he returns with his father to New England, meeting his stern old grandfather, his very correct step-mother, and an enlightened old great grandfather, who kept company with the New England transcendentalists. He is used for his connections by another woman, and returns with his father to Europe wiser and sadder.

Due to language skills and his savvy and facility in meeting the rich and powerful, he serves as a secretary to a geography professor who is part of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He witnesses the high public ideals of the Fourteen Points, and the private maneuvering among Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, for land and oil and the utter subjugation of Germany. At a point of disillusionment, he dabbles with Kurt and the socialists in a dangerous set of liaisons.

Sinclair portrays Budd against the backdrop of the Great War–the folly of the great powers who stumbled into this conflict, and eventually drew in the US. Lanny’s father tries to keep him out of it all, even as his company profits greatly, as do all the munitions manufacturers. He gets an education in the power politics, and the business interests that profit by war. This sets up a tension for Budd, raised among artists and caring for the fine and noble things of life. Does he join his father in an enterprise even his father approaches with cynicism, or pursue another path?

Budd also meets the socialists, and those who have ties to the revolution in Russia, through a socialist uncle, Beauty’s brother and becomes aware of the ways the rich exploit workers in every country. Lanny’s father tries to protect him from such influences as well. In this first novel, we see the tensions and influences at war in Lanny, while the world is at war. Sinclair sets us up for succeeding novels in introducing us to Lanny, able to travel with and identify with artists, the wealthy capitalists, even the socialists, moving through all these circles. We wonder if he really belongs to any of them.

If there is any criticism to be laid to this novel, it is that it seems more preparatory than anything to the stories to follow. The war and the Peace Conference really are the plot, with a bit of suspense toward the end around his relationship with Kurt and his uncle. But the book serves as a great summation of World War 1 and what pre-war Europe was like. It portrays the tragedy of Paris and Versailles that made the second World War inevitable and carved up the Middle East in ways that are still having repercussions. We glimpse the graft and folly behind noble statements and patriotic sentiment. And, similar to “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War, we wonder at what famous events, and with what famous people, Lanny will turn up next.

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”

 

Review: The Reckoning

The Reckoning

The Reckoning (Welsh Princes #3), Sharon K. Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991 (Link is to a different edition).

Summary: Brings to a close the struggles between Wales and England under Edward I, the complicated relationship between brothers Llewellyn and David ab Gruffyd, and tells the story of the women who loved them–a true tale of love and loss.

Last month, I reviewed the second volume of the Welsh Princes Trilogy, Falls the Shadow, which focused on Simon de Montfort and his campaign for the rights of the people with their king. In that book, the ongoing power struggle between the English and the Welsh remains in the background. In The Reckoning, Penman brings the history of conflict between England and Wales to its culmination.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of a young man, Hugh, who becomes squire to Bran de Montfort until his death of tertian fever in Italy, after which he serves Bran’s sister Ellen, who had been betrothed to Llewellyn ab Gruffyd, Prince of Wales, until the death of her father Simon and the family’s flight to France.

Llewellyn has his own troubles. His mercurial brother Davydd has always coveted his power, even while Llewellyn, as did his grandfather, Llewellyn Fawr, understood that only a united Wales could have any hope of standing against English might. It is an odd relationship of brothers strangely drawn to each other, despite Davydd’s betrayals, and alliance for a time with their hated enemy, Edward I, who, with the death of his feeble father, Henry III, is exerting his reign. Davydd marries Edward relation, Elizabeth at Edward’s behest, a relation that blossoms into genuine love.

Meanwhile, Llewellyn, fighting for Wales survival, and without an heir beside his betraying brother Davydd, revives his betrothal to Ellen, Simon and Nell’s daughter. Ellen, her priest brother Amaury, and Hugh take a perilous sea voyage and are seized by “pirates” who are in fact in Edward’s employ, and becomes a bargaining chip in the struggle, In the end, Llewellyn relents, is humbled and pays homage to Edward in return for the chance to marry Ellen.  He continues to hold Amaury to keep Llewellyn on his best behavior. Edward encroaches more and more on what were once Welsh domains and prerogatives, doing what Llewellyn had been unable to do–to unite Wales against the English and under his leadership.

The story reaches a high point at Dolwyddelan in December of 1281. Despite an earlier plot to assassinate Llewellyn, foiled only by a freak storm, Davydd and Llewellyn have drawn close, and the other lords of Wales are ready to follow Llewellyn into rebellion. There is one other wonder, and it is that Ellen is with child–an heir for Llewellyn! Was this what goaded Davydd into initiating the rebellion before Llewellyn was ready?

Edward I is a relentless foe, and the remainder of the story is one of heartbreak that I will leave to the reader. Only the love of the Squire Hugh, and Caitlin, the daughter of Davydd (a fictitious element) survives. Let us just say that it is from this period of time that the heir to the English crown is the Princ(ess) of Wales.

Penman writes a gripping tale of two men, Edward and Llewellyn, who each love a country and idea. Only one could survive. Her characters and their relationships are complex, especially the relationship between Llewellyn and Davydd. So many of these people are related by blood or marriage and we see in Edward especially the tension of love and the ruthless use of power to achieve his ends. She paints a time where love could be passionate, especially in the knowledge that life was fragile and death could come in many guises, and often before one was ready. This is an older series, yet one that I hope remains in print. Penman, over these three volumes, tells the story of the ascent of the English kingship, and what was lost in the process.

My review of Here Be Dragons.

My review of Falls the Shadow.

 

Review: Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow

Falls the Shadow (Welsh Princes Trilogy Book 2)Sharon Kay Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988. [Note: Publisher link to this edition unavailable; link is to another edition.]

Summary: A historical fiction account of the tense relationship and eventual conflict between incompetent Henry III (and his son Edward I) and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and husband of Henry’s sister, as well as the struggle of Llewellyn, eventual Prince of Wales and grandson of Llewellyn the Great to hold and unite Wales against the English.

In recent years I’ve discovered the historical fiction of Sharon Kay Penman (I reviewed Here Be Dragons, the first volume of this series on Llewellyn the Great in July 2015) and have loved her introduction to the world of the thirteenth century and the conflicts between England and Wales. This is definitely “backlist” and you probably can find inexpensive used copies of the whole series, which I would definitely recommend.

This volume is actually focused less on Welsh princes than on Simon de Montfort and the increasing tensions between him and his brother-in-law, King Henry III that eventually led to all-out war. Penman in an Author’s Note, informs us that she originally had planned to split focus between Llewellyn and Simon but found she could not do justice to both in the same book and so devoted this one to Simon.

Who was this Simon and why did he pose such a threat to Henry? Born in France, he accompanied his father in battle as a boy and learned courage, the leadership of others, and strategic thinking. An ambitious young man, he seeks to claim the family lands in England and persuades the Earl of Chester, a childless old man to yield them to him. He persuades Eleanor (Nell), sister of Henry to marry him, forsaking a vow of chastity she’d sworn after the death of her first husband. He effectively served the king in suppressing unrest in Gascony, only to be called to account by the King who listened more to the rebels than to him, sowing seeds of discord.

Meanwhile, his sons Bran and Harry, and Henry’s son Edward become fast friends and hell-raisers. Henry, however, in contrast to Simon, is ineffective in battle and without sense in his administration, spending lavishly in excess of his means. Eventually, Henry is forced by Parliament, with Simon in the lead to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which held the king accountable to his people. No king wished his power to be constrained by his subjects and this earned Simon his hatred, and sowed the seeds of war. Edward, deceiving Harry, rallies some of the Barons to the king’s cause, Simon suffers numerous setbacks and even flees to France at one point. Eventually he gains a decisive victory over the King, in part due to a battlefield error of Edward, at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. Simon attempts to rule in the King’s name implementing the Provisions, but quickly the situation degenerates as Edward escapes, the Barons rally to him, Simon and his son Bran are separated, and Bran decisively defeated by a lightning attack. Although helped by Llewellyn, Simon is undermanned and unaware of what has befallen his son, and is cornered by Edward at the fateful battle of Evesham in 1265.

In the backdrop of this primary narrative, is the uneasy relationship between Llewellyn and his younger brother Davydd over the leadership of Wales. As is the case in so much of royal history, it is the story of marriages between rival houses, and the conflicts of love and loyalty in consequence. Penman also exposes the plight of the Jews in England, hindered from all commerce but money lending, and hated for it, within often fatal consequences. We see the low status of the towns, expected to contribute to the king’s coffers, but enjoying no power, that Simon tried to elevate.

Simon de Montfort is remembered today as an early advocate of representative government. This work portrays him as a courageous man of integrity whose very convictions led to the tragedy of his end. He was too good for his King in many ways, earning the King’s undying hatred. In the end, men willingly followed him to death and pilgrims claimed healings at his grave. Unlike the religious martyrs under Henry VIII, Simon, portrayed by Penman as a God-fearing man of faith and friend of clergy, was a martyr to the idea that Kings should not be answerable to God alone, but also to those they rule. Penman not only tells a great story but does us a great service in bringing to life the greatness of Simon de Montfort, sixth Earl of Leicester.

Review: Shadow Country

shadow country

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen. New York: Modern Library, 2008.

Summary: A condensation of the Watson trilogy, giving three different renderings of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, a planter, and notorious alleged murderer, of the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida.

A few basic facts to begin with about this National Book Award (2008) winning novel. At 892 pages it is actually a condensation of an earlier trilogy of books on the Edgar Watson legend, cutting roughly a third of the material! Although fiction, the story is based on a historical figure who has something of a legendary status on southwest Florida, Edgar J. Watson.

Watson grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of an abusive Civil War veteran. Just when it appears that he is getting himself established, he gets mixed up in the death of a relative and begins a life of looking over his shoulder. He flees to Fort White, marries the true love of his life, who he loses in the birth of their first child who he only called “Sonborn” for years. Eventually he has to flee to the Indian territories, marries again, gets mixed up in the death of Belle Starr, does time in prison, and escapes and returns to Florida and kills a man in self-defense. He then heads to southwest Florida and sets up a new life on a sugar cane plantation in the Ten Thousand Islands area on the southwest Florida coast, near Chokoloskee, Florida, settled by the Smallwood family, who had a store there. He brings his second wife there until her health fails and she goes to Ft. Myers to stay with her daughter and son-in-law. He flees when former workers on his plantation and squatters on land he acquired turn up dead. He returns to Fort White, marries for a third time and gets mixed up in the murders of two men. After being acquitted, he returns to his plantation (Chatham Bend), which becomes the refuge of several criminals including the actual murderer, Les Cox, of the two men in Fort White (and several others). The climax occurs when a mass murder occurs at Chatham Bend prior to a hurricane while Watson is reputedly absent. Watson claims it is Les Cox who committed the murders, is reluctantly permitted to return to bring Cox back dead or alive, and when he returns without Cox, and appears to be raising his shotgun, is killed in a hail of gunfire.

That is the outline of the life of the real Edgar Watson. The novel consists of three books, during which the death of Watson is described four times. The first book consists of recollections of different people of the Chokoloskee area of the life and death of Watson. The second is the effort of his youngest son, Lucius, a budding historian, to find out first, who killed his father, and then, what kind of man it was they killed. The third book is in the voice of Watson himself, rendering the most complete account of his life.

What each of the accounts agree upon is that Watson was a kind of “force of nature” and a leader of men for better or worse. He was a womanizer who never apologized for satisfying his sexual drive, nor for the numerous children he begot. He drank far too much. Was he the notorious murderer the townspeople of Chokoloskee feared and ultimately did away with? Was he actually the bold entrepreneur who Lucius for some time believed was innocent of the evil others attributed to him. Was he the complicated individual who had killed some, was innocent of the murders of others who kept trying to make his way only to be brought down by misfortune.

Two other mysteries swirl around the book, and the legends surrounding Watson. Who fired the first and fatal kill shot. Was it the black man, Henry Short, and did the rest fire to cover it so that Henry would not be lynched? And what really happened to Les Cox, the pathological murderer who killed at least seven at Chatham Bend?

As you can tell, this is a dark story. What makes this long book a fascinating read is the exploration of this singular character over which people continue to argue. My own conclusion is that somehow, even the worst of human beings bear some trace of the image of God, twisted and obscured as it may be. It is also a story of the complicated relationships between blacks, whites, and native peoples. Lastly, in the backdrop is the ecological destruction of the natural habitat as forest are cleared, plume birds eradicated, clam populations destroyed and natural features destroyed by canals and road construction.

In addition to the fascinating exploration of this character and his place, what holds one’s interest through such a large book is the author’s technique of breaking a long story into bite-sized narratives in differing voices that keep you reading from one to the next until you decide (at least I did) to not put the book down until I finished it. For those contemplating whether this is the long book in which to lose yourself, don’t choose this if you are looking for a “feel good” book. This one will intrigue you, and make you think about the human condition in ways similar to Heart of Darkness in the shadow country of the Florida everglades.