The book of unholy mischief by Elle Newmark

I bought this book at a clearance sale at my local library. The barcode is crossed out, but I like to imagine that if you take this book through the little gates at the entrance the alarm will still go off. Then I can tell myself I’ve actually stolen this book and that I have to hide it from other people, so my thievery won’t be found out. Also, if people find out I have this book they will try to steal it back from me to read its secrets. I’m imagining this story because Newmark’s story is about a mysterious book full of secrets everyone pursues: people steal, lie and kill to get their hands on the book. I’ve decided to review this book to show its contents are innocent. And if you want to read the book afterwards you can borrow it, but please don’t steal it.

The plot of this book is set in 1498 Venice. The protagonist is Luciano who is a teenage orphan living on the streets. One day he steals a pomegranate: an act seen by the head cook of the doge, the head of state, of Venice. He takes Luciano off the streets, feeds him and makes him his apprentice. A few weeks in his new life, rumours start to rise about a mysterious book somewhere in Venice. Nobody is sure what the secrets in the book are: is it a recipe for eternal life, how to make gold, the recipe for a love potion or does it contain secrets which will shake the balance of power in the city? The book seems to contain exactly whatever the one pursuing it desires most. Around the palace of the doge, where Luciano works, there are many intrigues and plots to get the book. This is intertwined with the struggle for power in Venice, especially because the old doge is dying. As a servant, Luciano sees many people pass through the chambers of the doge and he listens in on many incriminating conversations. The players in this game over power and ownership of the secrets in the book do not shrink away from murder.

After a while, it turns out that the cook called Ferraro is more than a kind man and a brilliant cook. He seems to be a key player in the game of power, although in a more subtle role. While Luciano and Ferraro’s friendship grows, Ferraro shares more and more secrets with Luciano. Secrets that reveal the role of Ferraro and the role of his cooking in the power game being played in the city. However, the question that isn’t answered for Luciano is how that all is connected with the mysterious book everybody keeps talking about. Meanwhile, Luciano is also struggling with elements of his past life on the streets. His friends demand of him to steal food for them and are slowly getting involved with his and his master’s secrets, although he isn’t sure whether he can trust his old friends. Also, Luciano is in love with a novice called Francesca. He has heard the book contains the recipe for a love potion, so he also has his own interest to find the book, unconvinced as he is to be able to win her heart on his own merits. Even though, his master Ferraro urges him to either forget about her or to win her heart on his own.

The best thing about this book is the writing style. It is written in such a way that it drags you in and won’t leave you alone until the book is finished. The first time I finished this book I couldn’t even tell you if the plot was good or not, because I was too busy recovering from the thrill of reading this book. The book has a good balance of action and character development. Luciano goes from a street boy who doesn’t know which direction to take in his life to finding a cause to fight for and to better himself. One of the things he does is learning how to read and educating himself. His growth is illustrated in a particularly beautiful scene near the end where Luciano has to travel alone for a long time. He is not excited about the new adventure in his life, but rather sad about everything that has happened and the friends he has lost. A chapter of his life is ending and his future is uncertain. Despite his sadness and fear he still goes on to execute the responsibility given to him by his master. Luciano has learned from his master Ferraro to be strong and to face whatever is necessary to lead a meaningful life with purpose and integrity. Newmark created vulnerable characters who felt real with their own doubts, goals and shortcomings.

Another great element in this book is the role of food. It feels as if food is the actual protagonist in this book. There are lengthy descriptions of the food characters eat and the dishes Ferraro prepares for the doge and his guests. First, I thought Elle Newmark just really liked food, but it soon becomes clear that food has a bigger role. Food is used to calm people down, to manipulate them and to steer the course of history and even has the potential to be dangerous when used wrongly. Ferraro choices his dishes in such a way as to manipulate the thoughts and decisions of everyone who eats them aided by ingredients from his mysterious garden. The other people working in the kitchen look with suspicion at his cooking because it is sinful and looks like magic. Luciano is fascinated by the power of his cooking though, and me and Luciano both suspect more than one of Ferraro’s secret ingredients are some kind of drugs. I like the role of food in this book. It gives the book a very original and distinctive element and it made me appreciate the food I ate weeks after finishing this book. Especially how Ferraro forces Luciano to eat a grape with full intention. To focus on the taste, texture and smell. At that moment Luciano truly learns how to taste food and his career as a cook apprentice can start. Newmark’s descriptions are so real that you grave the food the characters get to eat, and you can even smell the dishes while you read about them.

As with all historical novels, there is, of course, the question of historical accuracy. Newmark herself confesses in a postscript of the book that she made up some things in the book, such as a bridge, for the purpose of storytelling. Also, there is no proof whether all the dishes would have been possible in 1498, but she says it is plausible of all of them. I am not a historian at all, for that you need to turn to Jo or Thura, and maybe that has been a blessing for me reading this book. I read the book as it is: a glorious adventure full of intrigue, mysteries and descriptions of amazing food. I was not bogged down by questions of historical accuracy or finesse of the plot and that is also what Newmark says: she asks understanding from the readers for mistakes made because her main goal was to tell a great story and that is what she did.  This book is a whole lot of fun and would certainly inspire everyone to go a bit further to learn cooking skills. -You never know when you need them to manipulate someone.

Mother’s kitchen award for all those times we ate food cooked with a precision that made us rich in feeling or ready to overthrow a government.

 

Elle Newmark, the book of unholy mischief (New York, 2007)

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Bella G. Bear

Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates / Cocaine Blues / Death by Misadventure* by Kerry Greenwood

Whenever you think life has become boring or every day is alike, I always find it helps to implement some elements of flapper lifestyle. I haven’t made it a secret in these reviews that I love the 1920’s youth culture. The young women who were derisively called ‘flappers’ had a peculiar elegance and seem to me not half as superficial as the journalists of their time had them be. Add to their exuberant style and fast-paced dancing an investigative mind and the vast country of Australia and you have Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates, the first book in this series about a flapper sleuth.

Phryne is a young woman (I would guess about thirty years old) who is at a bit of a loss in her life – after the First World War she led a wild life in Paris for a while, but she has returned to her native London and has to find some purpose in life. She has a talent for solving mysteries and a rich family asks her to investigate their daughter Lydia, who always seems to be ill when she is around her no-good husband. The thing is: Lydia and her husband live in Australia. But Phryne has no problem relocating to Melbourne. Next thing she knows, she disembarks in the Great  Down Under.

About the first thing she does there is preventing a young Australian woman from committing murder on a rich man who tried to assault her. Phryne humiliates the man and the appreciative girl, Dot, enters employment as Phryne’s maid in her apartment in the luxury Winsor Hotel. Phryne, you might have guessed, is fabulously rich (although she interestingly hasn’t always had money). She calmly assesses her new surroundings and starts embedding herself in Melbourne society. Soon she meets Lydia, a simpering doll of a woman with a surprising head for finance. She also meets a beautiful Russian young man, who entertains the upper class ladies and gentlemen of Australia with dance performances, together with his sister. Phryne enjoys young Sasha’s company quite a lot. Through the Russian siblings and their grandmother, she is put on the trail of an elusive King of Snow (meaning, cocaine) and from then on, Phryne divides her time between different lines of inquiry, jumping in taxi’s and changing outfits three times a day.

Clothes are important to the story. It is described in detail what Phryne wears, and on top of that she notices acutely what other people wear. Clothes are to her a form of expression and a useful clue as to people’s personalities. Phryne is incredibly stylish and I loved her from the start for her wonderful clothes. From disgraceful skimpy skirts to utterly decent church suits to being naked as the day she was born, she pulls everything off. A change of clothes means a metamorphosis. Phryne goes from society belle to cheap lady of the night in one quick wardrobe change. At first I thought the copious description of clothes was excessive, though I loved it, but Phryne is so much an artist with clothes that in the end it IS important to the plot.

It’s important to note that this is not a book from the twenties, but about the twenties. Kerry Greenwood explains a little bit about society in that time for the benefit of the modern reader, but does so rather subtly and, as far as I could see, correctly. The subject matter betrays that this is a modern story, because it deals with things that would be hard to publish in 1925: sex, homosexuality, abortion and rape (mentions only). This prevents the story from becoming nostalgic about the early twentieth century: the clothes and high society parties might be excellent, but life was by no means idyllic.

The plot is not as clever or complex as the detective stories by Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s more of an adventure, more exciting than surprising, with lots of action scenes. I was less curious as to ‘whodunnit’ than to know if everyone would make it out in one piece. I enjoyed the book tremendously and would love to read what Phryne gets up to next.

I particularly liked the friendship between Phryne and a lady doctor, dr Macmillan. She is much older than Phryne, weathered by years of misogyny and stoical hard work. She wears suits, is excellent at her job and worries about Phryne quite a lot. The two women are very different but appreciate each other greatly and their cooperation is very warm and trusting. I would like to see more of these kinds of relationships between women in literature. In general, the characterization in this story is great. There are lots of strong women, like dr. Macmillan, all of them different and none of them stereotypes. All the minor characters, male or female, wealthy or poor, are given traits and personalities unique to them. In such a relatively short book, that’s a feat to be admired.

I’m passionate about demanding quality ‘easy reading’ for women. Light literature, for want of a better term, is so often dismissed as shitty, especially when it’s aimed at women. But it can be really good, and Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates is exactly the kind of book I would recommend for taking on holidays and commutes. It is not complex, but it is good and it makes you feel happy without having to compromise your intelligence or good sense. There are more than twenty Miss Fisher stories and learning that feels like discovering a treasure. I will definitely return to Miss Fisher’s Melbourne.

Cloche Hat Award for keeping secrets even in a short haircut

* The title depends on where you bought it: Cocaine Blues is the original Australian title, Death by Misadventure the 1991 US title and Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates the 2005 UK title. My copy has the UK title so I’ll refer to the book by Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates.

Kerry Greenwood, Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates / Cocaine Blues / Death by Misadventure (Melbourne, 1989)

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Jo Robin

 

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

Once upon a time, there was a group of girls in secondary school, who baffled all teachers. They constantly flaunted the rules, skipped classes and sat outside the window in the sun. They talked in code, carried around secret documents and took care of each other no matter what. They refused to leave the world they appeared to have created, but they were happy. And maybe this is what baffled the teachers most. There were a rebel girl, a strict Christian girl and a quiet, but colourful, science-fiction geek. I imagine that if an American had written about our lives, this is probably how it would have been described. We were these girls and we created our own sisterhood in the middle of the chaos that was our lives. When nothing else was safe, we created safety. I was the first one to read this book, ’Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ and it spoke to me at once. There was so much I recognised, and this book became a pivotal piece of literature for us. We planned on writing a letter to Rebecca Wells when we were sixteen, but we never did. Maybe we should, though. If I were to write to her now, this is what I would say:

A ‘Tap-dancing child abuser’ of a mother. That’s what Siddalee Walker has called her mother in an interview with some big magazine, and Viviane Joan Abbott Walker is less than pleased. Sidda is a grown woman now, but can still feel very small in the presence of her larger-than-life mother Vivi. After the interview, Sidda immediately realises her mistake and desperately tries to apologize to her mum, while also fighting for a right to speak of her childhood in an honest manner. But Vivi ignores her, until Sidda writes her mum that she has postponed her marriage to her fiancé Connor, because they’ve been having problems as well. Sidda writes to her mum: ‘I just don’t know how to love’. Vivi’s having none of that and finally replies: ‘Do you think any one of us know how to love?!’ and sends her old scrapbook, The ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ along with the note, to her daughter.

Sidda has locked herself away in a cabin, to escape her mum’s anger and, mostly, her fiancé. With her she has her mother’s scrapbook that tells the tale of her life and that of her best friends: the Ya-Ya’s. The four girls met when they were only little, in rural Louisiana. Vivi has always been the leader; flamboyant, imaginative and taking up all the space in the room. Teensy was the rich girl, always speaking her mind, and ever so proud of her Cajun heritage. Caro was the little girl who grew up in a theatre and never lost that bohemian fierceness. Necie keeps them morally grounded: both in her appearance and manners the conservative one, but incredibly loyal. They’ve been inseparable from the moment they met, had many adventures, faced all of their demons together and created the sisterhood that they’ve called the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They’ve created their ‘own happy little world, that they still live in happily to this day’, but the problem is, they don’t really share it with anyone. However, the latest fight between Sidda and her mother makes them all see that maybe they need to speak out about things that they’ve kept silent about for so long. The scrapbook tells the story for them.

The Ya-Ya’s grew up in the South of the United States, a world filled with wealth and racism at the time, but they only saw the magic of it all. They climbed out of their windows at night, got into fights with the priest, got arrested for swimming naked in a water tank and had their own secret rituals over bonfires. But it ‘wasn’t all fun and games’, especially when they grew older. Slowly, Sidda learns of Vivi’s mother, her grandmother, who was a devout catholic, mentally ill and absolutely terrified of her daughter. This caused her to treat her terribly, send her away to horrible schools run by nuns for wayward girls and it nearly killed Vivi when she was only a teenager. Sidda learns of Vivi’s great love, but it wasn’t her father. His name was Jack and he was Teensy’s brother and Vivi’s future husband, until he was killed in World War II. None of these facts make Sidda’s childhood less traumatic, when her mother beat or disappeared on her children, because she was either drunk of dealing with her own mental illness. But the book does exactly what the Ya-Ya’s had intended: Sidda starts to see her mother in a different light, she starts to see her as a person  and not just as ‘her mother’. And finally, finally, the possibility of communication has opened up.

The three of us used to pass this book around, which is why it’s a bit worn, but I like it that way. We didn’t meet when we were four years old, I wish we would have, but when we were fourteen. We were completely different girls and the friendship was an unlikely one. This book very much has two sides to it: there’s the light one, of the happy memories of swimming and lounging at a lake, and the dark side of trauma and pain. The light part was our teenage experience for a large part. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but we had a lake nearby, parents who were absent a lot and therefore wine and cigarettes and we had eternal freedom, or so it seemed. But we also knew of some darkness, as we all came form homes that had its own share of problems and I, specifically, dealt with a lot of trauma back then. But we could face anything, because we were together. I think this book taught us more than anything that you need something to fall back on, a group, a tribe of women, whatever. The world is such a volatile place and people come and go, but some things are consistent if you let it be: these four girls might pretend they rule the world, but they don’t know much, except that they have each other’s backs.

This book has also taught me much when it comes to my parents. The other Ya-Ya’s tell Sidda often that Vivi is old now and she’s crazy; she will not change anymore. But Sidda still has a long life ahead of her and she shouldn’t run away from love out of fear. I think we often think of our parents as heroes, until something happens that breaks the idea you had of them, whether that happens when you’re very little still, or much older. Because the painful fact is: our parents are just people. Now, I’ll be the last one to say that we should simply forgive our parents no matter what, but this book has made me milder towards my own. Sidda learns what her mother was like a as child and it makes her more forgiving towards her mother, but I think that’s because she starts to see her mother as her own person. Parents often, or should, start parenthood with all kinds of ideas and some of them simply don’t work out. Whatever the reasons or history behind a childhood is, these will always be your parents and you have to deal with that. Oftentimes that means that you, as the child, will have to be the one to change, not them, because they can’t anymore. However, you can still change the way you look at things, whether that means moving on or forgiving your parents, but your parents will always have some place in your story.

That being said, I do in fact think that Vivi is a ‘tap-dancing child abuser’. There are all kinds of factors that make Sidda see that some of it wasn’t Vivi’s fault or mental illness is to blame to some degree, but she does abuse her children. The thing is, this was never what bothered Sidda so much: it was the fact that she thought her mother abandoned her and that she didn’t love her. But love was never the problem; the problem was how her mother didn’t speak of such things. I think this speaks of an entire generation who simply didn’t ‘interfere’ or talk about painful subjects, especially when it concerned their personal life. The only ones who were allowed to speak up were Vivi’s sisters, the Ya-Ya’s. I think what I like best about this book is that the other Ya-Ya’s break their vow of keeping silent on these painful memories, because they feel that is what needs to be done. Caro is the first one Sidda calls, after receiving the book, because Caro is often blunt and brutally honest, and so she is. People call each other ‘sister’ in a sort of pink sugar-coated manner, but here the true meaning of sisterhood comes to light: they hold each other accountable. They know each other better than probably their husbands do, longer at least, and they are not afraid to say: you messed up, go fix it with your daughter. Their intervention into the lives of both Vivi and Sidda isn’t democratic, but it’s much needed. This has happened to me on more than one occasion and I never much liked hearing the harsh truth, but God only knows I needed to hear it. And I am grateful now.

Memories are the core element of this book. In the ‘Divine Secrets’ Sidda is able to read of all the crazy things the Ya-Ya’s have done as young girls and some of them remind me so much of all the things we have done. I read this book for the first time when I was quite young and I adored these women. Now I’m older and I see quite a few flaws in the story. Rebecca Wells brushes over the fact that racism is very much present in the south and it even is in her characters. All of these women are spoiled and wealthy, and have no idea of real hardship. We used to pretend and say to each other: you would be this character of the Ya-Ya’s and I would be this one! But the truth is that we are from such a different world and we are none of them, but ourselves. But we come from a long line of women, and I’ve really started to appreciate that through this book.

So, Miss Wells, I thank you for writing this book. I thank you for giving me an appreciation of women, of tribes and long lines of women and an understanding of what men have to go through to deal with us. I thank you for giving me, now, an understanding of how flawed your book in some ways is, because we are not all rich white women. But most of all, I thank you for giving me an understanding of what friendship is. I don’t want to be like the Ya-Ya’s any longer, but I want us to be like us, because the Ya-Ya’s are just one tribe of women and we have our own. And lastly, I thank you for reminding me of the importance of memories: forever kept, hopefully valued enough and adding onto them as much as we can!

Find Your Tribe Award: because they’re out there, in whatever shape or form, and because no woman is an island

Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (New York, 1996)

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Thura Nightingale 

#Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso

There’s this series on Netflix called Nasty Gal. It is about Sophia Amoruso who starts a business selling vintage clothes on eBay from her bedroom. The shop grows from eBay to a website, and now it is a multi-million fashion business called Nasty Gal. I had never heard of Nasty Gal, but I suppose people who are into fashion have. I loved the series because I love second-hand clothes and a girl finding her path and success in this world. So, when I was walking through the second-hand stores in my town and I saw this book I obviously picked it up.

The book is Amoruso’s own work. In it, she tells about her journey of founding Nasty Gal and it becoming a 100 million business at the time of the book (2014). Also, she tells a bit about her youth and the Nasty Gal business now. She wrote the book as a motivation to show other #Girlbosses of how they can get success for themselves. Also, there are portraits of other successful #Girlbosses in fashion. Amoruso especially wanted to tell her story because she did not get her success in a traditional way (her words). She did not finish high school, never had a job for more than half a year, is a misfit and in her early years set to defeat the system. She started selling vintage clothes on eBay, because that is what she knew about, and that job allowed her to work on her own. Ten years later she is the CEO of a big company with employees and annual budgets.

Sophie’s challenge growing up is that she is easily bored. It’s not that she could not finish high school, she just really did not want to. She decided to work instead and threw herself full force in every job she got. One of the things she learned from that is making the perfect tuna sandwich from her time at Subway. Nasty Gal started when she had a permanent job at a university checking IDs at the entrance to get health insurance benefits for an operation. The job was so boring that she had a lot of time to muck around on the internet and to start an online business. The business grows and went from her bedroom to a house in suburbia, and ended up in a giant office in Los Angeles. The philosophy behind the business Nasty Gal is to help other misfits like her dress to feel good about themselves. She makes what her customer loves, and her customer loves edgy, non-boring and non-conventional clothing.

Sophia’s philosophy is that everyone can achieve their dream career if they decide to go for it. She used to be against capitalism, but now she likes to see it as alchemy: with hard-work, self-determination and creativity, things will eventually start moving for you. She hates people who say her success was only luck, and people who want to put her on a pedestal because she achieved so much despite her history. She did not succeed despite all odds, but because of hard work and creativity. And she wants other people to believe they can do the same. I agree with her that putting people on a pedestal can make success look unachievable. However, I also think Amoruso’s intelligence and experience played a big role in her success. And there is always luck of being in the right place at the right time. Hard work is a big part of success, but not everything and sometimes hard-working people don’t succeed. This book doesn’t address that part of the equation and focusses only on her personal success.

This book manages to do its motivational job though. About four pages in I wanted to underline everything Sophia said and shout ‘Yes Girl!’. Especially phrases to take control of your own life, work hard, be a bad-ass and change the world will give everyone creative energy. However, she does start to repeat herself. The book is only 240 pages but still got boring halfway through. Each chapter had its own theme such as firing people, taking care of your business and on being recalcitrant. The conclusion at the end of every chapter was: work hard, know yourself and be determined and I even feel I’m repeating myself in this review. She makes good points, but they would also be good only repeated three or four times instead of twenty times. Repetition to this extent always gives me the feeling people don’t have more to say. I doubt if that’s true for Sophia though, so it’s a shame it happens so much in this book.

On the other hand, I can understand the repetition. Sometimes that is the way to bring a message home. In that way, this book serves as a good friend who keeps shouting at you to keep hope and to keep trying whenever you feel down: it does its job being super motivational. Especially because she says that no matter what happens to you, it is a learning opportunity to get where you want to be. You never know what information turns out to be useful. Maybe I expected more of the book. I hoped for stories about thrift store shopping and altering dresses and stories of slander by boring vintage sellers. However, she only shortly touches on those subjects. Which is in line with her thinking to ignore the haters and keep doing your thing. The book is very business oriented in that way. On Goodreads, it has won an award for being the best business book, so I guess I could have known that. This is the kind of motivational book for people who want a big life and be successful in business. If you don’t, this book is not for you.

Ultimately, what Sophia Amoruso does in this book is persuading you to go out and work for your dream. She says to do whatever you feel you should be doing, and do it with full conviction. That is never a bad message to live by, although I doubt if the message that success is imminent with hard work is a good one to push that hard. After all, it is clear by now that the American dream that hard work will make you succeed is not true. Some people won’t and that is not their fault. That doesn’t mean you should not try, of course, hence I still recommend this book. It lacks variety to keep it interesting though so I would advise you all to find the book in a second-hand store. Read it on a quiet Saturday afternoon, learn from it, and then discard it for another book. That will be in line with Sophia’s philosophy of taking on everything in life that comes on your path until you find out what you’re supposed to be doing. You’ll never know beforehand which information will turn out to be vital.

Motivational #Girlboss award for giving us a clip around the head to get off our butt and do some work.

 

Sophia Amoruso, #Girlboss (New York, 2014)

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Bella G. Bear

The Letter for the King (De brief voor de koning) by Tonke Dragt

The Letter for the King is a truly iconic children’s book for us Dutch bookworms.* Tonke Dragt’s fantasy stories are unlike anything you’ve ever read, and this particular one has sparked a love for knighthood and adventure in thousands of children ever since it was first published in 1962. It was translated to English some years ago and now a new generation will encounter Tiuri, Piak and the knight Ristridin, because Netflix has announced they will make a series out of the story. I am both excited and terrified at the prospect. The book has shaped my imagination so much that the adaptation can either be a great disappointment or my new favourite series. Still, please read the book first. It is my honour to introduce to you one of the best things Dutch literature has ever produced (in my impassioned opinion).

It is late at night in the Kingdom of Dagonaut when five young squires sit silently in a chapel. They have keep vigil all night in earnest contemplation and can’t open the door for anyone. This is their last night as squires: if they pass this final test, they will be deemed worthy to be knighted in the morning. There’s a soft knock on the door. The five boys wait breathlessly until they hear footsteps die away: probably just someone who wanted to test their resolve. Then, in a voice so soft that only one of them can hear it, a plea sounds from the other side of the door: “In God’s name, open the door!” When sixteen-year-old Tiuri decides to risk his future as a knight and open the door for this stranger, his adventure begins.

The voice he heard belongs to an old man who has a quest for one who is brave and honest like a knight, without being conspicuous like an actual knight would be. He has a letter that needs to be delivered to a mysterious Black Knight with the White Shield, who in turn will deliver it to King Unauwen, ruler of the western kingdom on the other side of the mountains. Tiuri agrees to find the knight and to hand over the letter with the greatest possible secrecy after exchanging some code words. But after travelling through the woods in the summer night, he finds the knight dying, slain in an ambush by another Black Knight, who carries a red shield. The knight’s quest becomes Tiuri’s quest and he starts the long and dangerous journey to the Kingdom of Unauwen to deliver the letter, knowing that he can’t return to the chapel now and will not become a knight like his father is.

On the road to the City of King Unauwen, Tiuri encounters many people. Some of them, like Lady Lavinia, the mountain boy Piak and the Wandering Knight Ristridin, become his friends. They are however outnumbered by the amount of people who try to kill him, among them the Red Riders, a treacherous mayor and most importantly the spy Slupor. The lands he travels through are populated by pilgrims, knights, bards and hermits, as befits a good medieval story. The story is never dull. The changing scenery, the intrigue, the action scenes and the strong dialogue make sure of that. That being said, one of the most important characters that inhabit these pages never says a word. Ardanwen is a great horse, black as night, who chooses his own master. After the death of his former master, the Black Knight with the White Shield, Ardanwen allows Tiuri to ride him. Apparently he accepts that the Knight’s mission has been taken up by the teenage boy who came to find him.

The story has an interesting take on fate. It was Tiuri’s fate, his life’s calling, to become a knight. He wants nothing more than to serve his king faithfully. Heeding the cry for help from the man outside the chapel means, for all he knows, that he will not fulfill his destiny, but not heeding it would be unthinkable for a man who truly is a knight at heart. Tiuri hesitates, but follows his conscience. Instead of being chosen by a prophecy or destiny, our protagonist starts his journey by abandoning his own path to aid a stranger on his quest. Tiuri doesn’t know what is in the letter, he takes its importance on faith. He has no reassurance that he does the right thing and there will be no reward – moreover, before his journey ends he will have been ridiculed, imprisoned and hunted several times over. Nine-year-old me was in awe of this boy and actually, I still am. His character disavows the cynicism and individualism of popular figures of the modern age and decides to do the right thing in the moment, instead of leading the life that he has envisioned for himself.

Tonke Dragt was born in Indonesia when it was still called the Dutch East Indies and as a teenager spent three years in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. She told stories to comfort her youngest sister, who was often ill. The habit of storytelling remained: after the war she studied art history in the Netherlands and started teaching art classes. There could be as many as forty or fifty people at a time in a classroom, so she told stories to keep them concentrated. Stories about trees, she discovered, were especially good for drawing. Many of her books are filled with woods, this one among them. She wrote her first books at night, teaching by day. The skepticism of publishers then stands in stark contrast to the popularity of her books now: The Letter for the King is considered a classic in the Netherlands and has been translated to twelve languages. Tonke Dragt, who is now 88 years old, recently said in an interview that she especially wanted the book to be translated to Japanese, the language of her enemies. “If the Japanese children read my books, they’re not enemies anymore,” she said. She has resolved to stay alive for awhile so she can watch the first episode of the Netflix adaptation, to see if she likes it.

De brief voor de koning
Illustration by Tonke Dragt

Tonke Dragt read a lot about the Middle Ages, and it shows. She would check every detail: the sword fighting, the armour, the layout of castles and the time it takes to travel through different terrains. On top of drawing the illustrations herself, she also drew a map of the kingdoms and measured every distance. On a more abstract level medieval elements surface as well: chivalry, dedication and tests of strength play a large part. I learned the correct way to challenge someone to a duel from this book, as well as the correct way to climb a mountain (slowly). Though the Netherlands don’t have mountains, I practiced duelling and fictional-horse-riding enthusiastically for years. I wanted to be a knight so badly. Tiuri was my absolute hero and, I think, my first crush.

I’m not sure what made this story strike my imagination so vividly. Years later, I still feel happy when I hear the names of the characters and I can still see their faces, the castles, the monastery, the woods. I can still recite the code words. The plot and characters are fairly straightforward but some secret magic within those pages gave rise to hours, days, years spent playing out chivalrous adventures. Re-reading the story, I feel like making a wooden practice sword again. It’s never too late to become a knight, as Tonke Dragt has proven: she was knighted by our Queen in 2001.

King Arthur Award: for being the Holy Grail of children’s books

* Apparently, and to my surprise, this book is marketed in the Anglo-Saxon world as Young Adult. In the Netherlands, I’ve never heard it described as anything other than a children’s book and that’s how I still read it. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it at a later age, but it does mean the story and characters are written to be understandable and relatable for children.

Tonke Dragt, De brief voor de koning (Amsterdam 1962)

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Jo Robin