Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Sometimes you reread a book as an adult that you loved as a child, and it doesn't hold up. But sometimes you reread it and you love it just as much, and you realize that not only has it weathered through stylistic changes in publishing, it's also just as enthralling for the adult mind as it was for a child. That's the case with Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, copyright 1973. It won a Newbery Honor, which, on reflection, is an award common to many books I love (more so than the actual medal).

The story: It's 1558, and Kate Sutton and her sister Alicia are maids in the service of Princess Elizabeth, whose sister Queen Mary (as in Bloody Mary) has put Elizabeth under house arrest. Alicia writes to the queen to complain, and in punishment, she is taken to be a servant to the queen, where she can keep an eye on her, and Kate, who is truly innocent in the matter, is banished to a remote manor called Elvenwood Hall, where she will also be under house arrest. When she arrives, she hears of strange stories about the Wardens (the family the current lord, Geoffrey Heron, inherited it from)--stories of the Fairy Folk. Also, she learns that Sir Geoffrey's daughter disappeared down the holy well on the property, and that Geoffrey's younger brother Christopher believes it's his fault that she drowned, for he was supposed to be watching her that day. But then it is discovered that she didn't fall--she was taken, by none other than the People in the Well, to pay a teind, or in other words, to be a human sacrifice in their druidic rites. Christopher offers himself in Cicely's place, and Kate is taken captive and given to the Fairy Folk as well, to remove her as the sole witness to what is really going on in the caves and abandoned mines below the Elvenwood.

What's so excellent about this book: Firstly, even though it's historical fiction, there is a very modern sense to aboveground 1558. These are the reasonable people, these are the ones we feel we have most in common with. It's very matter of fact and real. Part of this is possibly because of the contrast between the modern people of the book and the people who live underground who still, 1600 years later, are still practicing Druids. It's not anachonistic at all--I admit I find those books that stick a pushy, modern girl into the past rather irritating. This feels right for the time, but it makes the time very accessible and "normal" for the reader.

Secondly, the main character herself. She's very matter-of-fact and practical; not given to hysterics or unsupportable imagination. When she does have strong emotions, they mean something. Having been accused of this in both life and writing, I can personally relate. But even if that is not you, just her being like this is good for the book, because she contrasts nicely with other characters who ARE prone to superstition and mystical ideas. And it becomes important to the plot and ultimate solution.

Third, I had to smile, because when they capture her and send her below, the manor steward cooks up the story that she's fallen in love with and run after Christopher Heron. Her indignant objection (even if you know he is significant to the story) is that she can't possibly be in love with Christopher Heron--she's only spoken to him twice in her life! Such a realistic and refreshing change from all those YAs where the heroine instantly and inexplicably falls in love with a guy because of some irresistable spark or compulsion she can neither explain nor fight off.

Fourth, I felt the story invested significant buildup at the beginning, and as a result, the rest of the book meant something and had sticking power. You've got to put in this investment. Yes, things need to be happening--but you've got to make us care about the character and her world if we're going to feel the stakes. Book to movie adaptations tend to be places where this falls apart the worst. But even in books, this is important. Start with action and have things continually happening, yes--but you've got to develop your characters and make us care, or the action will be meaningless.

So, really excellent book. I just wish she had written more!

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