Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds

If you want to see a masterful creation of a historical setting with details galore, this book is a must. From describing how olives are harvested to making blood sausage to stitching a serious facial wound, Constant Leeds weaves nonfiction details throughout this book that are brilliant, fascinating and informative. She also does a stunning job presenting another culture in the 16th century. The message of tolerance between Muslims and Christians is one that I do not often see in children's literature. This isn't the author's main point and is not touched on until the end of the book, but I love how she weaves it in the storyline. Ignore the unfortunate cover on this book... it isn't a pirate story. I found myself wanting to skim ahead to get to the pirates, but Luc isn't taken until page 91, and his kidnapping is short; it is really a story about family, being a slave with no freedom, the power of knowledge or education, and forgiving those who have wronged you.

Luc's father hates him and is a mean, verbally abusive drunk. His mom's personality has shriveled so that  she "no longer sings" like she once did. The two younger brothers adore 15-year-old Luc and are puzzled by their father's anger. The prologue gives the reader an idea why the parents are a mess but the details are not clear. When Luc's situation becomes unbearable he becomes apprenticed to a kind fisherman in the village away from his home. Whereas, his father calls him a "curse," the fisherman calls him "lucky." This new family of Luc's consists of the fisherman, Pons; his sister, Mattie; and 15-year-old Beatrice, who they raised as a child. Life here could not be more opposite than his previous one. Tranquility and joy dance across the floorboards and Luc soaks it up like a sponge. When pirates capture him and sell him as a slave in Tunisia, Luc is purchased by a great scholar who educates him. Luc's new family is devastated and Beatrice will go to extremes to try and find him. Meanwhile Luc adjusts to his new life and the kind scholar, but struggles with being enslaved. Can he forgive those who have hurt him?

The beginning of the book's pacing is slow but the last half picks up speed. The domestic scenes are solidly established and this serves well at the end when Beatrice is so insistent to keep looking for Luc. There is the hint that she is in love with him and he with her. They never blurt anything out loud to each other, but do show an interest in each other.  I felt removed from the characters in the beginning and restless with the pacing. The details were so overpowering that I didn't really connect with Luc. The reader meets all the different characters and I needed more of Luc's thoughts. In the second half, Luc shares more emotions and thoughts; plus his situation is full of tension and confusion. The pacing picks up and I was able to settle down. We are told from the beginning who Luc is from the prologue. I wished the author had not revealed this because it took the tension away. If she had left it out then I would have been wondering about Luc's parentage. I think she could have played up the Pascal, Sir Guy, and Count angle to keep the reader guessing. The irony of Salah wanting Luc to find freedom in knowledge and learn to accept his slave status is ripe ground for discussions.

The theme of forgiveness touches on so many characters and how they deal with this is another great topic that rests on fertile ground. Pascal and Blanche can't forgive and it eats them up. Beatrice learns to forgive but it is a slow process. Salah must ask for forgiveness for not telling the truth. Luc must forgive those who have been cruel to him, Pons must forgive himself for losing Luc, and Louis must forgive his father for all the people he murdered. Through forgiveness, we learn, hope springs forth.

I find it interesting observing how different authors handle characters going to another country and learning a language. Oftentimes, they make them fluent too quickly. Leeds has Luc learning the language in two years. He's gifted and brilliant so I can buy that and  he's completely immersed in the language. I like how she says that Salah would give him one word at a time to learn and thought she tried to show him slowly learning it. I did raise my eyebrows that he could read Sinbad out loud to Salah, but at least she puts at toward the end of two year. Maybe it was an abridged version versus the adult version of Arabian Nights. It is really difficult becoming a fluent reader - that comes later in second language acquistion - and Luc being a slave made it somewhat unbelievable. Not that it matters. What's more important in that scene is that he is showing that he loves Salah and is grateful for him giving him the gift of education. 

I have spent 8 years living overseas and it is strange being illiterate in one culture and literate in another. I do think Constance Leeds captures this dynamic well with Luc when he first arrives in Africa. I could easily see Luc ignoring Bes and his constant insults because Bes is speaking in Arabic. I have done this before when I know someone is mad at me and they are spitting out words I don't understand in a different language. It is much easier to stay calm because I can't understand what they are saying. Plus, as Leeds explains, Luc just ignored Bes like he had to ignore his abusive father for years. I don't think Bes would have left Africa and gone to Europe with Luc or given him his pearls. I like the touch, but Bes was too small-minded, nasty, and self-centered. I think I needed him more fleshed out as a character for that to happen. 

A twist is thrown in at the end that made me wonder if the author plans on a sequel. If you are a patient reader, like nonfiction, and good-writing you will love this book.

Reading Level 6.7
4 out of 5 Smileys

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