Hanna’s Daughters (Anna, Hanna och Johanna) by Marianne Fredriksson

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already reviewed this book. I talked about Simon and the Oaks earlier, which you can read here. That book started off my fascination with Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson and I immediately moved on to Hanna’s Daughters. Like Simon and the Oaks, this book is an honest story about a family against the backdrop of Swedish history. Unlike Simon and the Oaks, this story focusses completely on women’s perspectives. Three of them, as is visible in the Swedish title: Anna, Hanna och Johanna. Three generations put next and across from each other through the bulk of the twentieth century.

Anna’s mother Johanna is on the brink of dying. She is very old and her memory and speech have gone. Anna, a middle-aged Swedish writer, tries to deal with the imminent loss of her mother. She still has so many questions she wants to ask her. About the village Johanna was born in, for instance: her mother was the daughter of a miller near the southernmost part of the border between Sweden and Norway. Johanna always told her daughter stories of the beautiful lake with the waterfall that made the mill move and the fairies that danced on the rocks and between the woods.

Anna wants to know the women she came from, who shaped her. After she finds an old picture of her grandmother, Hanna, the perspective of the book shifts and we learn about Hanna’s childhood. Her family was incredibly poor. The tiny village by the lake where they live was struck by famine and only slowly recovered while Hanna grew up. When she was twelve and worked on her uncle’s farm, she was violently raped by her cousin and became pregnant with a little boy. The girl and her son couldn’t count on pity from the harsh, taciturn villagers: she was deemed a whore and her son a bastard until a widowed miller, moved there from another region, saw fit to marry her. With her husband, she got more children: three sons and a little daughter. The girl is called Johanna, and she will be Anna’s mother.

When Johanna was a child, she still lived by the lake in her father’s house by the mill and, for a time when there was a war threat with Norway, in a cave without so much as a fire. But when she was eight years old, the family moved to Göteborg. There, she embraces modern life as much as she can. Her happy childhood becomes a fairytale, she reads and dreams of stories and love. Her mother, a living reminder of the poor country she comes from, is often a source of embarrassment to her. Hanna, though very content with the conveniences of life in the city, doesn’t believe in progress like people in the cities do. She is from a culture of no expectations, little hope and taking things as they come. Johanna has a city education and a city accent and believes in things like social security and pensions and love. The women clash like Anna will clash with her mother and her daughters will clash with Anna after that. But each generation cares for their children as best they can.

The two stories of Hanna and Johanna are woven together by chapters from Anna’s point of view. While she tries to reconcile with the loss of the women who went before her, she decides to write a book about the family history. We follow her as she researches the family heirlooms and pictures and ponders the many complex relationships. Although the story is largely psychological, it reads like a thriller. Dreamy passages with elements of magical realism are intertwined with grim reality in that typical style that Fredriksson has. When trying to summarise the story it sounds rather bleak, but in reality it grabs your attention from the first page. Yesterday I reread the beginning before starting this review, and before I knew it I was a 100 pages in.

I think part of the attraction of this book is that Fredriksson is clearly aware that people, specifically women, are so connected in the things they feel and are and think. For centuries, certain images and pieces of wisdom and character traits have been given from parents to their children. Religion in the village by the lake, for instance, is a strange mixture of different strands of Christianity and remains of ancient beliefs: rune witchcraft, and widespread but secret superstitions. This eclectic mixture is not judged in the book, nor is it romanticised. Fredriksson seldom does your thinking for you. It is however one of the many story elements that show how everything we do has its roots in an exponential amount of people that have gone before us. Whatever the characters go through, there is something comforting in that thought that runs through the book.

There are few relationships more complex than those between mothers and daughters. Fredriksson draws out all the little spoken and unspoken things that happen between the three generations of women with so much nuance and softness. The women learn how to hate, how to hope, how to criticize, how to forgive and how to grow old. To create three full, complete women’s lives with all their contradictions, faults and virtues in only 400 pages is something few authors can accomplish.
It’s refreshing to read a book that is so completely driven by female characters. However, Fredriksson does have the tendency to blame everything that goes wrong in her characters’ lives on their mothers. A husband cheats on his wife because of his distant mother, a boy becomes a rapist because of his doting mother, the main characters’ inability to talk about their feelings is inherited from generation on generation. I forgive Fredriksson for this because of how much love and support exists between the women also, but I don’t agree with her. All daughters resemble their mothers to a certain degree, but it’s not fair to trace every shortcoming back to our parents and if we do, our fathers ought to shoulder some of the blame.

There is a sense here of a women-only world that I am fascinated by. It is a wonderful thing on one hand, but might also be the reason why Fredriksson blames everything on women. I don’t think she means that women are worse creatures than men. It’s just… men are what they are in the universe of this book. Whether they’re bad or good men, the women in their families are still in inferior positions to them. So those women turn their attention to each other. They focus on what they can change in their lives and who they can interact with, and this is a female world that consists of kitchens and churches and babies and baking. It is not a pathetic world but one full of meaning and strength and life. The other side of the coin is that they will criticize the women, who they might be able to change, and forgive the men, who they have no control over, regardless how badly those men behave.

I live in a world where, luckily, great steps have been taken in equality between men and women. Though there is still a lot of work to be done, I can see how far we’ve come and I am grateful for the good men in my life. But part of me longs for that female world that, in my culture, is now almost forgotten. There is a camaraderie, a wordless understanding and natural support in good times and bad ones that is now lost. I think Fredriksson still knew that world, even if her generation was trying to be free of it. And I don’t mean we should turn back time, because back then it was a necessity in the face of great pain and lack of agency. I just think we should think about keeping the good things, like loyalty and that particular female strength, while discarding the inequality and adding some diversity in our lives.

Marianne Fredriksson is careful about not making you nostalgic about old times and not overly trusting in modernity either. She does make you think about the people we’re connected with and the shapes love can take. She proves that you don’t have to be overly verbose or melodramatic to write about a family history. So I won’t become sentimental about this book – but heavens, how I love it.

Call the Midwife Award for nailing the circle-of-life theme

Marianne Fredriksson, Anna, Hanna och Johanna (Stockholm, 1994)

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Jo Robin

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that no contemporary book has a fan base quite as big as the Harry Potter series. If I were to guess, I’d say that everyone who reads this review has already read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone except for one person who has made a conscious decision not to and one very confused American who will realise in a minute that actually, he has. However! Have you read the particular edition that is illustrated by the marvellous British illustrator Jim Kay? If you haven’t, here’s why you should.

This is the first book in the Harry Potter series, in which Harry Potter turns eleven years old and discovers that he is a wizard. There are many editions of this popular book in existence, some of which are very beautiful, but what makes this version special is that it relies just as much on illustrations as it does on words to tell the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone contains, firstly, the kind of pictures you expect when you hear the word ‘illustration’: small watercolours next to the text or in the background and decorations around chapter titles.

But now and then you turn a page to discover a full-page painting that feels like you could reach into the book to touch whatever magical scene is depicted.

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p. 103

Kay’s style is vibrant, full of warm colours and has a strong sense of atmosphere. From one illustration to the next, the focus can be different, but the overall style remains coherent. Take, for instance, this insanely detailed picture of Diagon Alley, that actually runs over four pages in total:

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p. 60-61

And compare that with this relatively plain portrait of Draco Malfoy:

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p. 67

The two pictures seem nothing alike, except that the street that we see seems the only possible place that this boy, with his piercing gaze and long robes, can exist. Kay has succeeded in creating a visual world that seems real and complete in itself, just like Rowling did with words.

As you probably know, the Harry Potter world is quite harsh. You forget it sometimes, especially in the first few books in the series, but the wizards and witches can be distant and manipulative and callous even when Voldemort is nowhere around. Kay has grasped this and plays with it in glorious contrasts:

Hagrid’s little shack looks as comfortable as you can imagine, a place to feel safe and loved. The Forbidden Forest is eerie, but beautiful. Hogwarts is both wonderful and imposing. Remember, not only is this castle centuries old and made to keep bad people out, but this is also the first time Harry, Ron and Hermione see it, as it is their first year in school. I’d be very overwhelmed if I saw Hogwarts for the first time, from the viewpoint of a tiny boat in an enormous lake no less.

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p. 146-147

When I read a book, I have a very vivid image in my head of what people and places look like. This is why, for me, books and film adaption always exist more or less next to each other. The atmosphere of what Kay has created is remarkable close to what I imagined when reading the story for the first time, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. I can imagine that the pictures don’t speak to you if your own mental picture is completely different. Even if that is the case, the illustrations are drawn so skillfully and with so much expression, each of them can exist and be appreciated on its own.

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p. 150

Jim Kay is an illustrator and concept artist who lives in Northamptonshire with his partner, who is a designer and milliner. Kay has worked in the Libraries & Archives of Tate Britain and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. His love for museums, libraries and gardens is evident in his drawings: detailed backgrounds and textures are often inspired by real places. The door in this picture of Hermione conjuring a light, for example, is based on the door of All Saints church in Thornham.

Kay has done his research by visiting stately homes, churches and mansions which gives his illustrations a distinctly British character, in accordance with the story. One of the things I love the most is how overgrown Hogwarts is with ivy and other plants. In this picture, part of the castle is even built on trees:

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p. 247

It is nearly the last picture in the book, at the point in the story when the children are going home for the summer. In the course of the book, Hogwarts has become Harry’s home and he has made the wizarding world his own. Hogwarts in this picture is inviting, the place where he is confident he will be returning to in the autumn.

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p. 136

I think the fandom’s ubiquity has made the love for Harry Potter a thing that is often hijacked by commercial exploitation. These illustrations remind me of why I loved these books in the first place: the magical world, the rampant imagination that sets the story alight and the host of misfit characters. There are many more pictures to marvel at, from a Norwegian Ridgeback that is taken straight from Dragon Species of Great Britain and Ireland, to a nightly aerial view of Hogwarts, to a regal portrait of Professor McGonagall. Take your time to savour them and you might be inspired to take up a brush or pencil yourself. As Kay writes on his website:

“For all those young readers who like to draw, keep scribbling! Remember, it’s your ideas that are important, the technique will come along with practice. So don’t be down-hearted if things don’t always come out the way you’d intended. I’ve never produced an illustration that I think is ‘finished’ or that I’m particularly happy with, but I keep trying. Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make us interesting and different, in my opinion.”

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p. 94

Baz Luhrmann Award for a dazzling visual take on a classic

J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London 2015, story originally 1997)

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Jo Robin

A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp

When you study history you have to make choices very early on, because the whole of history is growing to contain quite a lot of years. What period do you want to study? What country or region? What class of people? Studying history at university has the advantage of being able to choose from a wide range of subjects to broaden your understanding of the world and go beyond what you know or thought you were interested in. My university had a good American History programme that I did not want to do. That’s how I ended up in a course about the history of Iraq.

A History of Iraq (note the indefinite article) tells the story of the modern state of Iraq (so no Mesopotamia) starting in the nineteenth century, when the region that is now the nation-state Iraq was a part of the Ottoman empire. It deals with the British occupation and Mandate, the oil finds, the Hashemite Kingdom, military coups and war with Iran, all the way to modern day Iraq.
Through this complex history, the particulars of Iraqi politics come to light. Its many aspects come together in an account of the coup d’état of 1936, when general Bakr Sidqi pushed the weak king Ghazi to replace prime minister Yasin al-Hashimi with his own favourite Hikmat Sulaiman. The power of the army is clear when Sidqi drops a few bombs near the prime minister’s office for dramatic effect. The effect of the system of ‘patronage’, political and social ties that determine affiliation, plays its part when Sidqi has Al-Hashimi’s influential minister of defense murdered, thereby making many enemies. The Sunni/Shi’a divide plays a part in the eternal question of foreign diplomacy: will the new government’s affinities lie with Iran, Turkey, the Arab world? And how to deal with the British, who no longer enforce a mandate in Iraq but still have quite some influence?

Reading a history book is like reading a story. In this case, a very detailed story. Charles Tripp, who is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), is thorough in his recording of the many different factions and politicians who played a role in Iraq over the past two hundred years. His writing style is matter-of-fact, which makes it a little hard to stay focused throughout. On the other hand, it shows the complexity of his subject matter without polluting his phenomenal knowledge with flowery prose. Overall, I prefer this dense, informative style to the (American) trend of popularising with funny asides and explanations of words you could easily look up.

By the way, Tripp and his editor have made it quite easy to remember who is who and what happened when: the book provides an index, a glossary of non-English words, a chronology, a list of abbreviations and no less than four maps. It’s probably easier to keep track of these Iraqi names than of those in The Lord of the Rings. Read history like you would a fantasy story and suddenly you’re wondering what the next twist will be or how this new character will fit into the greater story. And with history, you can be quite sure that the character will be relevant somehow. If you ever find yourself stuck on the pages of a very informative but bone dry history book (not that this is one), use your imagination and sense of humour and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to concentrate.

That is where the comparisons to a novel end, though. A History of Iraq is a political history, so it’s full of facts about politicians and war but not about the lives of ordinary people. I am personally much more interested in social and cultural history, but the thing is: you always need to read these political accounts first, because the influence of politics on society is so big. Before you can understand, for instance, a feminist revolution, you need to understand the context of government, wars, economics, and all that stuff that seems so far away from ordinary people, but isn’t. If my first book about Iraqi history would have been a social history, I might have learned lots of interesting things, but it would create the illusion that I ‘understood Iraq’ while I would in fact only know the anecdotes, not the framework in which they belonged. Now, I know some facts (I also forgot many of them), and have a good base for further study.

There is no shame in forgetting specifics when reading a book so full of them. Your overall understanding of the subject will improve regardless. The more you read, the more you can place new information, like newspaper articles, in a broader context. Terms like the Young Turk Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War will start to carry meaning and implications in your head. And most importantly, if you remember nothing else, you’ll be aware of the fact that things don’t just happen. Countries you have never been to have centuries of history with millions of people, all carrying their own sorrows and happiness. It might sound like common sense, but I think we could be more conscious of this, especially in the West.

What’s interesting about this book is that it was first published, to good reviews, in 2000. Then came 2003, and the United States of America invaded Iraq. In the third edition, which I own, Charles Tripp has added a chapter about what transpired in the next few years (until 2007, when the third edition was published). Surprisingly, this new closing chapter doesn’t feel like an appendix but flows very naturally from the events in the previous chapters. It makes you think that the people in the United States government would have benefited from reading this book and could have foreseen that their plans were doomed to fail. Not that I believe they actually cared about the Iraqi people.

I read somewhere that A History of Iraq is now suggested reading for people who go to work at the US Embassy in Baghdad. Maybe we shouldn’t count upon them to inform themselves, but read this book (or others about the region) ourselves to able to critically watch and judge the foreign policies of our governments.

P!nk Award for throwing shade at a certain president by recounting facts

Charles Tripp, A History if Iraq (Cambridge, 2000; 3rd edition 2007)

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Jo Robin

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

“I was born in a sycamore tree. That was fifty-five years ago, and it made me a bit of a local celebrity. My celebrity status was brief, though. Two baby girls, later my best friends, came along within months of me in ways that made my sycamore tree entrance seem less astonishing.” Odette Henry tells the story of her life almost casually. She and her friends, locally known as the Supremes, have been inseparable since they were very young. The book lets them tell their stories, sometimes moving, sometimes joyful and sometimes absurd. In my opinion, there was a bit too much of everything. Even though the characters were sympathetic and the writing style natural and warm, I missed depth in the many issues the story touches upon.

Three middle-aged women meet every Sunday after church at the local diner, Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. Odette Henry, Clarice Baker and Barbara Jean Maxberry have been nicknamed ‘the Supremes’, after the singing group, ever since they first made the diner their hang-out as teenagers. They have stuck together through love, marriage and heartbreak, taking on their lives together. At the start of the story, they receive some bad news: the owner of the diner, Big Earl, has died. From now on, they have to get through their troubles without his kind support and advice. Big Earl started the first black-owned business in their small town of Plainview, Indiana, United States. His diner was the heart of the community and a refuge for outcasts of any skin colour for decades. Even when Big Earl retired, you could always find him at the diner, now owned by his son Little Earl. The Supremes have their own table there, where they share sorrow, joy and gossip.

Missing their friend and father figure Big Earl is made the more difficult because the three women encounter one of the most challenging years of their lives. Barbara Jean’s husband dies and the man she loved as a teenager returns to town. When they were young, their love was impossible because he is white and she is black. Now, decades later, Barbara Jean has conflicted feelings about her first love. Clarice, the poised piano teacher, struggles with her charming husband’s adultery and her own lack of assertiveness. And Odette, the sassy fighter, learns that she has cancer. The story jumps back and forth through time, showing the lives of the three women through the lens of hindsight while they deal with the challenges of the present. Many more characters appear along the way, making it colourful if a little overpopulated. To make matters a little more complicated, Odette starts getting visited by ghosts like her mother was before her. While the Supremes work their way through their troubles with wit and friendship, the ghosts comment and give unsolicited advice.

When I was little and first learned the word ‘novel’, I thought that it meant a book in which characters encounter as many dramatic, real life problems as possible. Somebody must have explained it in the wrong way or else I jumped to conclusions on my own. I genuinely thought that a novel needed to be stuffed with life-threatening illnesses, tragic deaths, divorces, etcetera. I now know that ‘drama’ is not synonymous with ‘novel’ and that ‘conflict’ doesn’t mean literal fighting but The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat made me think about my youthful mistake. This story has a bit too much of everything, especially dramatic plotlines. It makes it hard to keep track of who is dealing with what. It sometimes veers to the ridiculous, which threatens the balance between comedy and drama. I’d say the author should have limited himself to one big conflict for every Supreme, allowing it to really make a difference to their development as people. That would make the drama more affecting and I suspect it would also make the comedy funnier. As it is, none of the serious issues like racism, alcoholism, abandonment, grief for a child and adultery are explored to the extent they deserve.

The story alternates between chapters told in third-person and chapters that are told by Odette in first person. The exclusives through Odette’s eyes make clear that the author thought of her as the most important character. Although the life stories of Clarice and Barbara Jean are also central to the book, it is Odette who is the most interesting. She is the most opinionated and strongest of the three and the most vulnerable as well. She loves her now-dead mother very deeply, although she’s quite different from her. She has learned to copy her mother’s confidence despite of her own self-doubt, which makes her the decisive one in her friend group. The fact that she sees ghosts is not that shocking to her: she takes things as they are and the ghosts of her parents and people she knew in her past are often a comfort to her, connecting her with times gone by.

One thing the (male!) author has done very well, is to portray the friendship between the women itself. It is a comfortable friendship that only exists when you’ve grown up together and know each other through and through. Although I am half their age, I was convinced by the portrayal of how female friendship works when you’re middle-aged and your children are grown up. The women have insecurities but their friendship is the thing they fall back on. This is illustrated when Big Earl’s daughter-in-law runs past Clarice and Odette to seek comfort with Barbara Jean upon hearing of Earl’s death. Clarice and Odette, although both closer to friends to the woman than Barbara Jean is, are not for a moment offended or surprised. They know that their best friend knows more about grief than they do and people turn instinctively to her for comfort.

All in all, the story is charming and engaging. But I have to confess that I forgot almost everything about it quite soon after I had finished it. There are too many colourful but two-dimensional characters and too many different plotlines that keep the story from really diving into its subject matter. I liked the book, but wouldn’t read it a second time. Then again, not every book needs to be a classic. The feel-good friendship of the Supremes at their favourite table at Earl’s gives off plenty of warmth for a one time read.

Greek Chorus Award for the ghostly group of commentators

Edward Kelsey Moore, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (New York, 2013)

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Jo Robin

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Every once in a while you finish a book that is so very interesting that you don’t know where to start when talking about it. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is such a genuinely enjoyable but also thought-provoking book that I had the greatest difficulty in keeping this review to a reasonable length. I won’t try to go into every aspect of the story but I encourage you to read it for yourself if you are in any way interested in romance, farmers, feminism, scandal, epistolary novels or just good writing. You’ll find some spoilers in this review from the fifth paragraph on, so if you want our heroine Helen Graham’s past to be a surprise, stop reading there. Otherwise, please read on and let me know what you thought of the book!

In 1847, a middle-aged Gilbert Markham writes a series of letters to his brother-in-law Halford, telling about his life before they knew each other. Back then, he was a well-to-do young farmer somewhere in the north of England. Everybody knew everyone in his quiet little village and Gilbert lived happily with his mother, sister and brother. Then one day, the village rumour mill is abuzz: nearby Wildfell Hall, a once great house owned by the local nobleman Frederick Lawrence, is said to have a new tenant. A young widow called Helen Graham has moved into a small part of the building, together with her child and a servant. The villagers don’t know what to make of her: she’s a bit of a hermit who doesn’t join in the social life of the village and is fiercely protective of her son.

Initial interest in Mrs. Graham turns to hostility when a local girl starts a rumour that Mrs. Graham isn’t as respectable as she seems and meets with men under the cover of night. After a while, Gilbert Markham is the only one who truly believes in her innocence. He has fallen in love with her and wants to protect her good name against the slander of his neighbours, even when Helen makes it clear that she doesn’t want to marry him. But the evil whispers have taken root in his mind despite himself. When he happens to overhear Mr. Lawrence and Helen Graham talking late at night at her house, he immediately believes they are having an affair. He gets so angry that he knocks his former friend Lawrence to the ground with his whip the next time he sees him. Finally, Helen agrees to explain the mystery that surrounds her and gives Gilbert the diary that she kept during the last six years. The second part of the novel consist of the contents of the diary, and the third part tells about what happens after Gilbert is fully briefed about Helen’s past.

I have in the past subjected you to various rants about why people shouldn’t demand anachronistic values and viewpoints from characters in historical novels. I stand by that, but can you imagine my surprise when I found genuinely modern discourse in a book first published in 1848? Anne Brontë was ahead of her time, even more than her sisters were. This story contains a plea for raising boys and girls with the same trust in their capabilities; a man who respects his love interest enough to let her decide how she will raise her own son, even though he disagrees with her methods; a male love interest who shows his emotions and respects his love’s wishes and personal space; criticism of men who are friendly and polite until they demand sexual favours for being ‘nice’; and examples of how both men and women can perpetrate domestic abuse. These are all still topics of debate today. The world has come a long way since 1848, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall still feels shockingly relevant. A pleasant side-effect of Brontë’s story is that it counters the rosy view of nineteenth-century life that romantic novels of that time can sometimes evoke.

Anne Brontë preferred Realism over Romanticism. The difficult subject of domestic abuse is an important part of the story. Helen Graham is abused by her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, who humiliates and manipulates her in a cruel way. Believing it her duty to stay with her husband and care for him, Helen tries for a long time to make him a better man. But as the years go by, Huntingdon’s alcoholism worsens and with it his abuse of her. Helen starts to realise that she can’t change him and that she has to take care of herself and her son. She finally resolves to run away with her child to save him from his father’s corrupting influences. This shocked Victorian England: the accepted trope in literature as well as in real life was something like this: a saintly woman, gently guiding the wayward man onto the right path. It was definitely not supposed to be the woman ‘failing’ at saving her husband and running away from him.

With subtle storytelling, Anne Brontë critiques how the law and society are constructed to protect men but not women. She clearly lays out the shame and judgement that accompany abuse and the self-doubt that arises from being manipulated by a charming but selfish loved one. Helen Graham refuses to have sex, not only with a neighbouring gentleman, who has in an increasingly threatening way pushed her to start an affair with him, but with her husband as well. Seeing as the United Kingdom only criminalised spousal rape in 1991, you can imagine how stunned the Victorian public was at a book in which a wife refuse her husband his ‘right’ to have sex with him. Giving the continuous discussion about consent, there’s still confusion about who has autonomy over a woman’s body.

We are used to seeing religious arguments used (or mis-used) to defend patriarchal norms. It’s therefore quite interesting how Anne Brontë combines her (proto)feminism with strong theological convictions, the most important of which is the concept of universal salvation: the belief that, after a period of penance in the afterlife, everybody can ultimately go to heaven. To understand just how shocking her ideas were at the time this book was published, you have to imagine a world in which for one, breaking the promise of marriage to leave your husband is a sin and a woman who does this is thought a degenerate, and for another, heaven and hell are very real and separate places where people go after they die. Brontë puts forward consecutive ideas that each go against the prevailing worldview:

  1. For this woman, Helen Graham, leaving her husband is not a sin but a token of strength, and no redemption is needed (defying societal values);
  2. Her husband’s conduct toward his wife IS a sin and needs redemption (defying societal norms);
  3. No redemption is given in the story because Huntingdon does not take responsibility for his sins (defying literary expectations of seeing a bad man reform);
  4. And yet he is not excluded from heaven forever and may very well earn forgiveness after his death, according to Helen Graham (defying common belief).

Brontë’s beliefs were endlessly generous when it comes to the eternal soul, but uncompromisingly severe in the conviction that people need to take responsibility for their misdeeds here, on earth. As I see it, Brontë is saying that we as humans do not have the power to condemn people to hell, but do have the right to seek and demand justice. Because she believes in equality, according to Brontë this goes for women who seek justice against men as well as the other way around. What a mind-blowing thing to say in a time period when women had almost no rights to protect themselves! To contradict a man, to carve out a place for your own life, to ask for respect and to demand tangible retribution when evil is done to you: it was both scandalous and revolutionary.

All in all, this is a great story. Besides being a touching romance and a an interesting analysis of Victorian society, this book reminds us that although we can’t always see it from contemporary literature, women in the nineteenth century were people just like you and me. Sure, there are differences in morality and beliefs. Expecting the politically correct opinions for 2019 from authors and characters from different times is unrealistic and will make it more difficult to understand what the author is trying to say. But that doesn’t mean that women were happy living in unequal, abusive relationships, just because it was considered normal. Novels can give a distorted, idyllic view because women weren’t always allowed to show their true feelings in print (or at all). Sometimes you hear the claim that modern feminists are dramatic or overreacting to things because women ‘used to be happy and content’. That turns out to be ridiculous, which is why radical books like this one need to be more widely read. British suffragist May Sinclair wrote in 1913 that “the slamming of [Helen’s] bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Let it reverberate again.

May Irwin Award for an actual, canon kiss on the lips between lovers

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (London, 1848)

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Jo Robin

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

We all know The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’s beautiful children’s book that he wrote for his goddaughter. The book, about a magical land called Narnia, sparked a whole series, of which The Magician’s Nephew was the sixth to be published. It is, however, the series’ prequel and so it is the first story according to Narnia history. To make matters more complicated; Lewis started writing this book soon after finishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it took him five years to complete it. Whether you regard it as the first, the second or the sixth installment in the series: this is a book of beginnings.

The story starts in 1900, with two children playing in the attic of the rowhouses where they live. The attic that Digory and Polly are exploring connects all the houses in the row, so that the children can crawl from house to house. They happen upon Digory’s uncle, who is secretly a magician. As an experiment, he tricks the children into touching magical yellow rings that transport them to a strange land full of pools. The children recognise this land as an in-between place, like the attic that connects their houses back home. They call it the ‘Wood between the Worlds’, where every pool is a portal to another world.

Before they go back home, the curious Digory persuades Polly to explore one other world using the rings that his uncle gave him. Yellow rings bring you and everyone you touch to the Wood between the Worlds, while green rings enable you to jump through a pool into one of those worlds. Unfortunately, the pond they choose brings them to a desolate world from which they inadvertently bring an evil queen called Jadis back to England, who promptly goes on a rampage through London, trying to take over Earth.

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Original illustration by Pauline Baynes

Digory and Polly try to return the Queen to her own world by touching her and the rings at the same time. In the confusion, the children, Uncle Andrew the magician, the Queen, a London cab-driver and his horse called Strawberry all end up in a dark, empty world. This is a world that is not yet created. As they all watch, the lion Aslan appears and creates the world by singing. It is the start of Narnia.

As I mentioned, the story is a prequel, especially to Lewis’s first Narnia book that tells the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. Everything started when Lewis’s friends, after having read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, asked him how the Victorian lamppost that is in the middle of Narnia’s woods ended up there. Lewis, who had not originally intended to write any more Narnia stories, was intrigued by the question and wrote the answer in the form of this prequel. We also learn more about the origins of the magical wardrobe through which the Pevensies end up in Narnia, and about the mysterious Professor Kirke.

It is no secret that Lewis’s Narnia stories have strong parallels with Biblical stories, although he himself maintained that he did not intend them as such. The beginning of Narnia is reminiscent of the story of Genesis and the creation of Earth. As in Genesis, evil is brought to the world shortly upon its creation, and as in Genesis, a personification of evil tempts the protagonist to take a bite of an apple. This happens when Digory is sent by Aslan to find an apple that will keep the evil Jadis away. The Queen, who has eaten one of the apples, appears and tells Digory to take a bite to become immortal. Furthermore, he can steal an apple and bring it to his mother, who is gravely ill. But Digory is not the first man in existence: he has other people to consider, mainly his mother and what she would think of him stealing. He doesn’t make the same choice as Adam and Eve.

C.S. Lewis was a storyteller in heart and soul. He was also an English literature professor and lay theologian, after he converted to Christianity at the age of 32. He wrote and spoke extensively about all kinds of skeptical questions that he had in his years as an agnostic, prior to his conversion, and thought about still now that he called himself a Christian. As a child he was mightily fascinated by Norse mythology and created a fantasy land called Boxen, together with his elder brother. He grew up to study and teach Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. In everything he wrote (that I know of) this rich imagination plays a part, as well as the theological questions that to him were of the utmost importance. The biblical creation story shines through in The Magician’s Nephew, basically Lewis’s own mythology, as an inspiration and reminder of what was true to him. He did not mean the story to be a retelling of Genesis or to uncritically impress Christian values on young children.

Even if he did mean to do that, his books are not like some prudish, moralising children’s stories that Lewis would probably be familiar with from his own childhood. His writing is fresh and humorous, sparkling with imagination. His children are real children and not little adults, which is quite a feat. He describes countless wonders, sometimes abandoning the plot for a while to talk about a forest, or a building, or a garden at length. This doesn’t bother me, and it bothered me even less when I was little. I had a remarkable tolerance for digression back then, I remember, which enabled me to coast through books like The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie without getting bored. The Magician’s Nephew however has tons of adventure and threatening antagonists to keep you interested when you’re not eight years old and a day-dreamer. Lewis is the all-knowing narrator who tells the story like a grandfather telling a bedtime story:

“I wonder what Polly’s doing?” thought Digory. He wondered about this a good deal as the first slow half-hour ticked on. But you need not wonder, for I am going to tell you. She had got home late for her dinner, with her shoes and stockings very wet. And when they asked her where she had been and what on earth she had been doing, she said she had been out with Digory Kirke. Under further questioning she said she had got her feet wet in a pool of water, and that the pool was in a wood. (…) As a result she was told that she had been very naughty indeed and that she wouldn’t be allowed to play with ‘that Kirke boy’ any more if anything of the sort ever happened again. Then she was given dinner with all the nice parts left out and sent to bed for two solid hours. It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.”

I’ve loved the Narnia Chronicles ever since I first read them, although The Magician’s Nephew was my least favourite. The reason for this is very simple: I wanted to be in the world of Narnia, and a big part of the prequel doesn’t even take place there. My favourite was The Horse and its Boy, the only book that doesn’t have a protagonist from this world. Still, the least favourite book in a favourite series is also well-loved. It’s just ironic that the young me escaped to a fictional world through a story, that, upon reflection, continuously points to our own world.

Mirror Award for making a cockney cab-driver the king and a magician the jester

C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London, 1955)

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Jo Robin

 

 

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time, a woman bought a farmhouse. This was quite remarkable, because it was 1905 and she wasn’t married. She kept on a tenant farmer to manage the business, but was keen to learn how to farm the land and even herd sheep. As she had always gotten along well with children, she told stories to the farmer’s little son and daughter. As the woman was a writer and illustrator, one of those stories was published in 1908 as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the children and their mother appearing in the illustrations. It’s more than a century later now, but the books of Beatrix Potter are still well-loved.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck - Ralph and BetsyJemima Puddle-duck is not the cleverest of ducks. She doesn’t have enough patience to sit on her eggs until they hatch, so the farmer’s wife takes the eggs away to be brooded by hens. Jemima, determined to brood a nest of her own, decides to lay her eggs away from the farm and leaves for the woods. Arriving at a clearing, she meets an elegant gentleman with “black prick ears and sandy-coloured whiskers” and a long bushy tail. He offers her his shed full of feathers to make a nest in and the gullible Jemima accepts.

When she has laid nine eggs and announces that she will start brooding, the gentleman offers to make her dinner first, and asks her to get some onions and herbs. At the farm, unknowingly collecting the ingredients for duck stuffing, Jemima runs into the wise collie Kep. When he asks her where she’s been, she tells them the whole story. The dog, who immediately grasps what the polite gentleman in the forest is after, springs to action to help his friend Jemima, who still doesn’t have a clue.

Beatrix Potter has blended a fairytale and the place she and the children lived. She saw the story as a reimagining of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. In a way, the story is like many modern retellings of fairytales: it brings the story closer to the world that was familiar to the intended readers. Ralph and Betsy Cannon, the children of the farm, would know all about farm life and how their mother would place ducks’ eggs with chickens because they were better at brooding them. Even if you live in the city in the twenty-first century, the tale is engaging and refreshingly down to earth.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck - flyingMore than that: it is incredibly funny. The ‘elegant gentleman’ is never referred to as a fox in the story, although it is clear that he is from Beatrix Potter’s illustrations. His evil grin when Jemima’s back is turned makes his intentions with the duck abundantly clear. This tension is made even funnier by the clear, matter-of-fact language of the story, like when at some point Jemima is locked in the shed: “Jemima became much alarmed.” There is no baby-talk, but it’s still understandable for little children, even if they don’t know all the words. The pictures and text perfectly complement each other to tell a story that speaks volumes to the reader, while the protagonist is completely oblivious of the trap that is laid for her.

I read a few reviews that said the story was too harsh for kids (the ending is quite happy, but not completely so). Someone even said that it gave the wrong message: that women and poor people are fools and that decisions should be made for them, like with Jemima and her eggs. I disagree with this reading. Although the animals in the story wear clothes and talk, they are undeniably animals. Like I said, they would have been recognisable to the children on the farm all those years ago but even now, it is easy to recognise the duck’s behaviour if you’ve ever met a duck. The same goes for the fox and the dog. A fox that wants to eat a duck or eggs that become cold and don’t hatch are no shocking events in nature, and certainly don’t mean that Beatrix Potter thought taking human children from their mothers was a good idea.

I’m not opposed to looking for hidden meanings in stories, but projecting the same contemporary political issues on every story from every time period you encounter is both unnecessary and insulting to literature. In my opinion, this book is not about gender roles but about animals behaving like animals do, whether you approve of it or not. If anything it’s a cautionary tale, not classist or sexist propaganda. After all, it’s based on a fairytale, a very particular genre, centuries old and meant to teach you life’s truths. They are less moralistic than children’s stories that were common in Potter’s age and certainly less comforting than today’s bedtime stories.

Of course, not every child will like this and that’s alright. The book is so small that you can read it in a few minutes to see if it suits the child you’re planning to read this to. Just because nature is harsh doesn’t mean we should expose children to realities they’re not ready for. I just know I really want to read this to a little boy or girl, just so I can pretend that I don’t understand who the fox is either and have them explain it to me with appropriate exasperation.

Mad Hatter Award for a children’s story that ages well and of course for that stylish blue bonnet

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (London 1908)

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Jo Robin

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

For a much longer time than I expected, vampire romance novels were everywhere. I have enjoyed and subsequently tired of the genre like the rest of us, but was called back to it by the splendid cinematography of Sky series A Discovery of Witches. After watching the series I decided to read the book, half expecting to hate it. Instead, it turned out to be exactly the thing to get me out of a reading slump, along with The Raven Boys. It’s a story not only about vampires, but witches and daemons as well. To my delight, much of the story revolves around history. Finally, a book that makes good use of the fact that half its characters are centuries old. Why even bother writing a vampire romance of you’re not going to put knights and castles in it?

The world of A Discovery of Witches is exactly like the real world, except for the fact that witches, vampires and daemons, collectively called ‘creatures’, exist in it. They keep their existence a secret and pass for ordinary humans. Vampires are dangerous predators and are immortal, witches can possess all kinds of magic and daemons are volatile creatures who walk the line between genius and madness.

Diana Bishop is an American historian from Yale University, specialised in the role of alchemy in the development of experimental science in the early modern period. She is also a witch, although she wants nothing to do with that part of herself. While studying alchemical manuscripts in Oxford, Diana calls up a book only to discover it is brimming with magic. Reminding herself that she is only interested in the historical value of the volume, she sends it back to the stacks. If she thought that would be the end of it, she was badly mistaken: other witches, vampires and daemons in the Bodleian library have felt the magic too and soon, word spreads among the creatures that Diana Bishop, the American witch, has found the long-lost ‘Ashmole 782’, the mysterious book that every group of creatures wants for itself. But no-one else is able to call up the book: it is lost again.

One of the creatures who come flocking to Oxford after this news is Matthew Clairmont, an imposing, fifteen hundred year old vampire. He has been looking for the volume himself for several centuries, believing that it holds knowledge about the origin of creatures. After he ascertains that Diana is no longer in possession of Ashmole 782, he has no other choice than to keep watch nearby, hoping to persuade Diana to call back the manuscript with her magic. As a grudging friendship inevitably turns into romance, they make enemies of most other people in their world: for not giving them Ashmole 782, for their forbidden vampire-witch relationship and for reasons they don’t understand yet, but might have to do with Diana’s parents, who died when she was seven. Fleeing threats from witches and vampires, they travel first to Matthew’s family castle in France and then to the friendly haunted house of Diana’s aunts in upstate New York, all the while trying to make sense of the mysteries that suddenly fill their lives.

Deborah Harkness is a historian, like Diana, and between Diana and Matthew, who was born around 500 AD, half the dialogue is about historical facts and ancient books. It is gloriously geeky, full of references to crusades, early science, wars and poetry. I learned about a troubadour language that I didn’t know existed and was delighted alongside Diana every time she found a manuscript or first edition in Matthew’s tower library (a Gutenberg Bible and a first edition of The Origin of Species among them). Diana dives into history while Matthew has brought a lot of history with him to the present. Since one of those things is a chivalric order, I can’t wait for the fighting to break out in part two of the series and finally see those vampire knights in action.

A whole book is a lot to read about just two people and their blossoming feelings for each other, so luckily there are a host of other interesting characters. I liked Sarah and Emily, Diana’s temperamental aunt and her longtime partner, a lot. They are practical, kind and caring, and very attuned to each other. Their house is both bewitched and haunted by Diana’s ancestors, who provide sarcastic dialogue in the background. My other favourite is Sophie, a young daemon who seems ditzy but is in fact intuitive, sweet and determined. The vampires were harder to like, always brooding and secretive, but they made great antagonists like Domenico, a sneering Venetian vampire, and Gerbert, an ancient menace who is infamous for once having kept a witch captive to drink her blood and learn her magic.

The story is good, not great, but good. Deborah Harkness doesn’t hurry, recording every glance and thought and change in the air with meticulous dedication. I like slow storytelling, although I must confess that she sometimes went overboard, like when she took a whole paragraph to describe someone putting on their shoes. Also, the book didn’t really end – it just stopped when one part of the story was more or less done. It was neither an open ending nor a cliffhanger. I guess the All Souls trilogy is more a three-volume-book than a three-part-series, like The Lord of the Rings. This disappointed me a little, because I did just read 688 pages leading up to a conclusion that wasn’t there.

What I liked better than the story was the world building. Although the world is basically our own, Deborah Harkness built the reality of the creatures into it. All the main characters are creatures. Humans live in the background only and most of them have no idea that daemons, witches and vampires exist. Most stories give an explanation along the lines of ‘humans would be scared if they knew and kill them, therefore the mythological beings live in secret’ and leave it at that. Harkness, on the other hand, really expands on how creatures live, what their traditions and cultures are like, how they lived and organised themselves in different time periods and how they fit into modern society. The reality she creates seems plausible and that’s not easy in this genre.

When I imagine immortal creatures like vampires, I always wonder how they can have normal, equal relationships with ordinary-aged people, romantic or otherwise. If their mind ages, they are surely far too mature to be interested in the few decennia of wisdom a normal person has to offer. If, on the other hand, their mind stays frozen at the same level of maturity as their body, how can there be any character development? The vampires in A Discovery of Witches seem to feel as young as their bodies are, which makes me wonder if Matthew’s character will develop over the course of the trilogy. As he is quite controlling and possessive at the moment, I hope the author finds a way to change him believably so that he can be in a healthy relationship with the much younger Diana.

I’m not surprised that she falls for him, though. I don’t even like Matthew that much but a man who can tell you about the great moments of literature, science and music first-hand is irresistible. The whole book is written with great love for history and that alone makes it worth reading. It’s not that fashionable to be interested in history where I’m from, but there’s so much beauty, wisdom and wonder in the past, so many triumphs and mistakes. If to read books is to lead many lives, as somebody said, than to read history books is tantamount to being immortal. If a fantasy book conveys a tiny bit of that magic, it’ll win me over. This one did.

Immortal Keanu Reeves Award for the mysterious people in our world with personal libraries and illustrious past lives.

Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (London, 2011)

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Jo Robin

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

 

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