Could Jane Yolen write a bad book if she tried? Well, in fairness, I’m sure she could—we all have our flops—but I haven’t found it yet. I read three of the four Scottish historical novels she wrote with Robert Harris, The Queen’s Own Fool, Girl in a Cage and Prince Across the Water.
The Queen’s Own Fool, set in late-16th century France and England, is the first person narrative memoir of a tumbler girl snatched from the jaws of her abusive uncle, leader of Troupe Bufort, by the kindly impulse of Queen Mary during her marriage to King Henri II of France. The book follows Mary’s life fairly faithfully, though the narrator is a fictional creation. Girl in a Cage is about the daughter of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland in the early fourteenth century; she was imprisoned for several years while Edward Longshanks and Robert hammered out a war of supremacy…or rather the English troops marched through Scotland while the Scots taunted them from behind bushes and rocks and any other available cover. As with many footnote women in history—and unfortunately for the female gender, all but a VERY few women were footnotes—the daughter is quite real, as is her captivity, but much of this book is conjecture. Well-written and well-researched, to be sure, but fictitious. Prince Across the Water is, not surprisingly, about the Jacobite uprising(s) in the mid-eighteenth century; the central character is a fictitious boy, growing up in a fictitious village in the Highlands, who is determined to prove himself on the battlefield as his grandfather did in the uprising of ’15 and becomes embroiled in Culloden, meeting along the way a number of very real participants in the real events surrounding that and other battles.
I’m not too crazy about The Queen’s Own Fool, as the insertion of a BFF for Queen Mary struck me as a bit awkward1 given that Mary is a fairly well documented woman even by modern standards; I understand that the character is a dramatic necessity, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly likely that Mary would have become so close to a guttersnipe child so quickly and so thoroughly. The character of Will Somers in Margaret George’s book about King Henry VIII was not only older when he entered Henry’s service but better educated and not nearly so close to the king emotionally as Nichola was to Mary. The protagonist’s interactions with real people in Prince Across the Water doesn’t seem so problematic to me, curiously, as he had only brief interactions with any of them. The later two struck me as a good introduction to the history of the period for elementary school aged children, though simpler than Lawson’s two books about the American Revolution. They’re on the border between what libraries would consider juvenile and YA books, so they may end up in either collection depending on the decision of the holding library2. Overall, they left me curious to track down the fourth in the series.
What to read next? In the juvenile section, I’d suggest Karen Cushman’s books, such as Catherine, Called Birdy and (list a couple of her other books, check when internet comes back up). In the adult section there’s always Margaret George’s first two books and Diana Gabaldon’s first three, once one runs out of Alison Weir and Jean Plaidy.
1it worked with Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII, as she didn’t pretend Will Somers was Henry’s confidante in any real sense.
2when in doubt, libraries will often bump a book up a level: juvenile to YA, YA to adult