Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett's books are like music: a rhythmic cadence, delicious word choices, unusual images, complex themes, and great character development. I feel like I'm in the eye of the storm. My hurricane pace slows for a moment and I think about the beauty of language and what makes a great storyteller. The narration has little action as most takes place in the country-side at Uncle Peregrine's estate, Heron Hall, where twelve-year-old Cecily; her brother, Jeremy; and her mother, Heloise, have sought refuge on the eve of the 1940 London Blitz. While en route they pick up an evacuee, May, who along with hundreds of other children have traveled to the country for safety. Many are without any adult supervision and need to be taken in by families.

At Heron Hall, May and Cecily explore the ruins of Snow Castle where they find two boys in "pantomime" costumes. Perhaps they are runaway evacuees housed with some theater folks. They are distrustful, snobbish, and afraid. Cecily is a snob right back. May cuts through all the blustering and sees the two boys actions are based on them being afraid. This coming-of-age story is historical and has a fantastical element. The author captures the complex relationships of families, friends, and acquaintances.

When we bought a puppy, my five-year-old daughter expected the little furball to sleep with her, patter in her shadow nonstop, and worship her like a goddess. She'd grab the pooch and carry her everywhere. If Cecily had her druthers, she'd collar May and force her to follow her around. When the family scoops May up at the train station Cecily likens it to finding a "kitten in a basket." She picks May like a she's a toy in the store. When she realizes that May is "independent" and does what she wants, things get ugly.

Cecily is a selfish, spoiled, lummox who remains an unsympathetic character until the end of the story. Only a confident writer would risk creating an unlikable character. Cecily says mean things to May bossing her around and acting superior because she has money. She isn't completely lacking in qualities; there are glimpses of kindness and humor. She does feel remorse at times, but only if the other person gets angry. Jeremy and Heloise are usually putting Cecily down although with Jeremy it is more your run-of-mill sibling relationship where they fight but are also loyal to each other. Heloise can be cruel to her children; yet, both she and her husband are indulgent as well. Cecily's superior attitude toward May is her way of feeling important and powerful. May acts as her foil and is the smart hero, so it works. 

The Snow Castle adventure alternates with Uncle Peregrine telling an after-dinner tale of Richard III, who he calls, The Duke. The tale is based on the history of the end of the House of York before the Tudors came to power. Richard III supposedly killed his two nephews and usurped the throne. Peregrine is described like Shakespeare's King Richard III with a limp, long hair (medieval fashion), and a widower. Except Shakespeare's King is not as introspective as Peregrine. The family learns from the Duke's story how the unscrupulous pursuit of power can impact the future.

The overarching theme of power shows how it corrodes friendships, causes wars, is oppressive, and does not bring joy to the usurper even if it does bring money and position. More importantly, the entire plot shows the powerlessness of children. They are under the authority of adults who can be cruel or kind. Adults can use power to shame and control people. In this case, Heloise controls her children and threatens them when they disobey. Also, the moral complexity of children being shipped out of London for their safety and the desire to be independent from the power of adults is reflected the most in Jeremy's character. The nature of power is examined in its abusiveness from children to adults and kings.

Jeremy and his mom have power struggles. He wants to be a man and feel he's helping with the war effort and his parents see him as a kid they want to keep safe. His mom doesn't talk to him about it but just exercises her parental authority enjoying her power over him that comes with being an adult versus a child. Jeremy takes the powerlessness of being a fourteen-year-old under the care of his parents and acts on it to find power in how he wants to shape his future. Jeremy's arc shows that he doesn't have to kill to be a man in the war. He can save people in other ways. Power for him comes in saving others with the results of peace and joy in his spirit. It also awakens him to the knowledge that his father is not perfect. He realizes both of his parents have shortcomings and even though he loves them, he will make different choices in his life.

Jeremy represents young people and the desire to test themselves. I remember doing crazy things as a kid. We'd jump off bridges into the lake. We felt daring and brave. Some kids tested themselves on bikes or skateboards or speeding in cars. Jeremy wants to use war to test himself in battle. This seeking of danger is one that can be a push for independence by teens and is part of the coming-of-age story.

The two alternating stories morph together in a fantastical way. Is Peregrine related to Richard III? The locket given at the end suggests that he might be. Peregrine's gift of the locket to May and his comments where he tells her she is the most important person ever to stay at Heron Hall, suggest she is the link between histories in the past and the current life. Out of all the characters, she is the one who sees things that others cannot. I kept thinking of her as the ghost-of-histories past.

Great lines brim the pages of this book from Cecily wanting to bite off her nail to Jeremy describing the blitz. "Her thumbnail, incompletely chewed, was singing a siren's song." I'm a nail biter so I laughed at this one. It didn't matter how many times my parents told me to stop biting my nails, I'd go after them whenever I had to sit still. Jeremy's dramatic description of the blitz: "He'd opened his eyes to the oddest of sights: the sky above him was red. It was slashed across with the white beams of searchlights, and burnt black at the edges by night: but the clouds were red as if the sky had been drenched by buckets of blood. He didn't see aeroplanes, but he felt the vibrations shake though his body, four hefty booms to the chest as the bombs drove themselves into the ground."Another great line is Peregrine's: "Flimsy things like words become lost in time." I don't reckon this authors will be lost anytime soon.

5 Smileys

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