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.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the road with Rosemary Sutcliff

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad The Moorchild was a favorite.  Moql is a great character.  You talk about looking forward to reading the book again with Isabel.  Do you and Eleanor ever re-read your read-alouds?  I remember reading Tolkien over and over again with Lizzie, revisiting the Ramona books with Mona, and occasional other favorites.

I'm currently re-reading a multi-generational favorite because it's come back to play a big role in our family.  Bob wrote about his love of Rosemary Sutcliff's books for us here.  When we started reading them to Lizzie, she also connected closely with them.  The one which became very special to her -- as it is to her father -- is the one with the strongest female character: The Shield Ring.  It takes place in the Lake District in northwestern England in the years after the Norman conquest of 1066.  It tells the story of fierce resistance to Norman rule on the part of Norsemen (descendants of Vikings) who had settled in the area. The two central characters are young people orphaned by the hostilities.  Frytha, the girl, is smart, perceptive, but very much a part of the society she lives in.  She learns archery when the women are called on to help defend the settlement, but her strength and attraction are in Sutcliffe's nuanced portrait of a great character. 

Lizzie was Frytha for Book Character Day back in third grade, and she continues to re-read the book now.  Her high school senior paper, in which she had to compare two books, was on The Shield Ring and To Kill a Mockingbird: the connection between the two had to do with the nature of courage.

Next month, Bob and Lizzie are immersing themselves in The Shield Ring in a new and wonderful way.  They're heading to the Lake District to spend a week finding the places where the action of the book takes place.  Sutcliff describes in detail the landscapes where battles happened, warriors were buried, characters found emotional escape.  Many of these are places Bob has located -- along with the trails or precarious winding roads that will get them there.  One of the towns they'll visit is called Buttermere, possibly derived from the name of a Norse leader, Jarl Buthar, who is a character in the book.  The land the Norsemen were defending is beautiful, and the characters have strong connection to it.  Here's Sutcliff's description of a spot high on a ridge, a few miles from Buttermere, that appears twice at important parts of the story:
Frytha lay silent a while, gazing down.  Up here on the ridge one seemed in some strange way to be riding out, far out, over the dale below; it was like being in the prow of a gigantic long-ship, she thought, though she had never seen a ship.  On either side of her the deep glens, and between them the slender long-ship thrust of the ridge, tapering down into the marshes where the Normans were hurriedly throwing up bank and stockade about their camp.  Marshes that glowed tawny green below the grey and blue, russet and purple of the fells.  Save for the distant swarm of figures about the Norman camp, there seemed not a living soul in all the sweep of country; nothing to tell of the fighting that had gone on all the sweating, blistering day.
That spot on the ridge appears on 21st century maps as Aikin Knott; one can imagine Frytha looking out over the countryside:

View toward Aikin Knott
Both Bob and Lizzie have loved The Shield Ring since childhood.  Now, with Lizzie an adult and the two of them armed with maps, rain gear, and a drive-on-the-left rental car, they're going to immerse themselves in Britain of a thousand years ago.  And it all started with a wonderfully written children's book.




  1. Lovely post. Have a fascinating trip. And may I use some of this, properly attributed, at

  2. Thank you, Anthony Lawton. You're welcome to use some or all of the post. Please attribute with a link back to AnnieandAunt. Bob Thompson will be traveling to the Lake District from our home in Washington DC; Lizzie Thompson is living and teaching in Galicia, Spain: the trip is scheduled for her spring break. Chances are good we'll post more about it after the fact!