April 18, 2012

TURNING PAGES: The Wicked and the Just, by J. Anderson Coats

A bundle lies beside the door. The creature within is colorless and smooth, oddly calm. Like statuary, or a figure cast in wax.

I shove the bundle into the brat's arms. She shudders and and scrambles to hand it back. "You'll hold it, " I tell her. "You did this. SO have a good look at what you wrought."
Her eyes widen and she says, I did not do this.
I pinch the warm pink flesh of her upper arm. "This is hunger's work."
The brat rubs the reddening patch and says, your poor neighbor. Who will look after her? Where is her husband?
"Husband?" I snort. "She should be so lucky..."
The brat swallows hard. She looks greensick. She whispers words in English I do not recognize...

Ave Maria gratia plena, whispers the brat, and she holds the bundle close as if it's a live, breathing child.

Reader Gut Reaction: This debut novel is really close to my heart - not because I've ever been to Wales, but because I've lived in Scotland. Here there are T-shirts which read "Bannockburn, 1314." Some people here will never forgive the dirty dealing by the English, even so long ago. EVER. For the sake of their ancestors, the oppressed never, never, never, never, never, never forget. Unto their third and fourth -- and by now, fifteen hundredth - generation.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Not the endless unforgiving hatred, no. But, the not forgetting bit.

Studying history, have you ever been tired of hearing about the Holocaust? Would you have preferred to live it? People who get sick of hearing about slavery? Ditto: your lot could have been to experience it in person. My history teacher, Mr. Reedy, reminded us of this frequently: those who forget -- and sometimes, even those who remember - are truly and surely doomed to repeat our history.

This is the bloody, raw, and terribly true story of how England "joined" with Wales from 1249 onward. It is engagingly, brilliant told, and will leave readers with a fire in their heart over the utterly and appalling injustice meted out again and again. No doldrums from historical fiction haters, here. The author takes some gambles - and goes out on a limb to not soften any blows. She rejects the soft-focus ending. This is real, and gripping and important and -- HISTORY, dear readers. This is an awesome book.

Concerning Character: The book is voiced by two - Cecily, an English girl, and Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl. Neither of them are a good fit in the town of Caernarvon, and both struggle.

Cecily is frightened and angry when she arrives in Wales. Since she'd been a child, she had longed to be the lady of the house, and her mother had promised her when she was tiny that someday, she would hold the keys, and see to the keeping of the land. But Cecily's mother has died, and her uncle returned from the Crusades and for his service to the King, their family's steading now belongs to him. Eventually Cecily's father was given land in Wales - a land that Cecily never wanted, and she knows she'll never warm to. Things are different in Wales - she's thought of as common, coarse, and poor. Though they have the King's regard as well, she's a novi - or what we'd call nouveau riche - and she'll never be as good as those who were born in Caernarvon.

She pushes down her anger and her fear, but what happens to acid shoved down? It seeps, sputters, and burns in terrible, terrible ways...

Gwenhwyfar wishes all the English dead. All of them. All of them, forever. For every groping at the hands of the guards. For every fondling simply to be allowed to sell their thin cow's rapidly souring milk, for every bribe to the miller for a ridiculously small amount of oats. The English had them thrown out of their home when she was tiny, and now they have trod upon her land and her brother's lands with metal-shod feet, and mean to see themselves raised up as demi-royalty, and herself and her people, outside of the walls, dead.

She will see them dead first.

And the bratling, in whose house she works, who walks with such airs, as if she thinks herself a fine, fine lady? Oh, she will be the first to burn...

Not the most sympathetic of characters, at first blush, either of these girls. And yet - both girls grow on the reader in a fierce and gripping way, as the history becomes more and more personal.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Ramsay Scallop, by Frances Temple, Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, Quest for a Maid, by Frances Mary Hendry, and other fiction by Ann Rinaldi or Donna Jo Napoli, the Historical Fiction mavens.

Themes & Things: As the title, THE WICKED AND THE JUST suggests, the big themes here are evil and J-U-S-T-I-C-E; right, wrong, and responsibility. For what are we responsible, when it's our parents doing the wrong? How much responsibility does a king hold over his lords? When the downtrodden rise up, are they responsible for their actions? After, all they were wronged. Is their responsibility tendering mercy? There are some huge, deep wells of thought to have which will spark hundreds of intense and potent classroom conversations.

Cover Chatter: While I do not often love seeing a girl on a novel cover, this novel shows us not a disembodied torso to judge or even a girl curled up on the floor, defeated and posturing weakness and pain, but her full body, in motion. A silhouette, set against the castle of Caernarvon, we cannot tell which girl the walker is -- and that's just as it should be. Because, when it all came down to it, the girls were identical, merely one side of the coin and the other, both on Fortuna's wheel, as it were. A really striking cover.

FTC: All quotes from ARC copy, and may contain phrases which will be amended in the final copy. Copy furnished by NetGalley at the courtesy of Harcourt Publishing. My opinions are my own.

You can find THE WICKED AND THE JUST by the brave and brilliant debut writer, J. Anderson Coates at an independent bookstore near you!


LinWash said...

I really want this one. Book Smugglers also had a review. I'm getting this one!

tanita✿davis said...

It's SO good - she goes out on a limb and makes people COLD and CRUEL and REAL - and yet, there's that tinge of hope at the end - that someday, something good can come of people's natural inclination to be wicked... that someday, justice will be served. It's a very strong book, very strong.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Ooh, I must, must, MUST read this one.