In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Guest blogger: History and Lit

Dear Annie,

I can never quite remember from year to year the rhythms of the holiday season in the toy and book store, but it sure has been intense this year.  So my spouse is stepping in, delivering an entry I've been hoping he'd write for quite a while.  Without further ado, here's Bob Thompson, guest blogger:

At some point in the early 1960s, when I was maybe 12, I picked a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff off a shelf at the public library.  Half a century later, I'm still rereading her.  This says a lot about the way certain books can grab you, emotionally and intellectually, when you're young, and also about the uncanny ability of Sutcliff –- a prolific British writer of historical fiction –- to evoke lost worlds.

original 1959 cover
The Sutcliff I'm rereading right now is The Lantern Bearers, and the lost world it evokes is Britain in the 5th century A.D., at the very end of Roman rule.  Waves of Germanic invaders, known generically as Saxons, threaten to overrun what's left of Roman Britain (it is no secret that they will eventually succeed) while a half-Roman, half-British war leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus struggles to keep them at bay.  Ambrosius is a real though extremely murky historical figure, plausibly reimagined.  His successor, who plays a supporting role in The Lantern Bearers but stars in Sutcliff's adult novel Sword at Sunset, is the historical antecedent of the legendary King Arthur.

A heroic, doomed fight against long odds that emerges as legend: Who can resist that narrative?  It goes back to Thermopylae and beyond.  Yet what made Sutcliff's version stick with me are the individual stories woven into the larger drama –- people I came to love, and the adult-level complexities of their lives.

The Lantern Bearers begins with a quick sketch of family happiness in perilous times.  Aquila, a young Roman cavalry officer, arrives home on leave to his father's farm.  Flavia, his sister, has turned 16 since he left.  “I don't suppose you can even run now,” he tells her.
     She sprang up, her face alight with laughter.  “What will you wager me that I do not reach the terrace steps ahead of you?”
     “A new pair of crimson slippers against a silver buckle for my sword-belt.”
     “Done!  Are you ready?”
     “Yes.  Now!
Flavia wins, but Aquila's debt goes unpaid.  Without warning, Rome pulls its last troops out of Britain.  Aquila makes an agonized decision to desert his command and stay.  Days later, Saxons kill his father, burn the farm, and carry Flavia into captivity.  Her screams will haunt his sleep for years.

Aquila survives his own, separate captivity with one goal remaining: to find his sister.  Yet by the time he does, her Saxon ties –- a man, a child –- are too strong to break.  Looking for a cause, and an outlet for his bitterness, he seeks out Ambrosius and ends up commanding a British cavalry wing.  By this time, however, he has withdrawn from risky human connection, and when forced into marriage, for political reasons, he is equipped only to do damage. 

Here is his wife, Ness, condemning his self-protective callousness:
It is never the things that you do, but the way that you do them.  You took me from my father's hearth as you might have taken a dog -– no, not a dog; I have seen you playing with Cabal's ears and gentling him under the chin -– as you might have taken a kist or a cooking-pot that you did not much value.  Did you never think that I might have knifed you with your own dagger one night, and been away in the darkness?
She does not knife him, and slowly, after the birth of their son, his human feeling returns.  Naturally, this opens him to the pain he has been suppressing.

Ness is a subtly-drawn character, as are so many in The Lantern Bearers; I can’t do them justice here.  I’m also slighting the action part of the plot.  War is a constant in Aquila's life, and Sutcliff describes the fighting with heart-stopping vividness.  Then, in the aftermath of one last battle, the public and private narratives converge.  Aquila encounters a wounded Saxon warrior with Flavia's face, and is forced to decide -– as when choosing between Britain and Rome –- which loyalty to betray.

Spoiler alert: It turns out to be no contest.

“You must tell her that I send her son back to her,” Aquila tells the wounded man -– at last putting his own grievous wound behind him -- “in place of a pair of crimson slippers.” 

Thank you, Bob.

And love to you, Annie.


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