Review of the Day: A True and Faithful Narrative
The sequel that can stand entirely on its own is a rare and beautiful beast. Recently I’ve read several sequels to children’s books that demanded an in-depth knowledge of all the previous titles that came before. And to be frank, I feared the case would be no different with Ms. Katherine Sturtevant’s title, "A True and Faithful Narrative". One glance at the setting (Restoration England) and I was ready to high-tail it to the hills. And in truth I was disadvantaged by not reading “At the Sign of the Star” (Ms. Sturtevant’s earlier work) but not in the way I expected. Had I read her first book I would have known right from the start that “A True and Faithful Narrative” was bound to be a smart and intricate little work that could compete for attention entirely on its own. This is one of the slicker bits of historical fiction to come out this year, and may be more enticing to adults than children. Then again, Ms. Sturtevant has such an engaging narrative voice, it may prove difficult for older child readers to resist her.
Daughter of a bookstore owner in 1681 London, Meg Moore has a problem. Everyone knows that she loves to read and she’s in the unique position to see new plays, books, and essays the minute they come out. What Meg really wants to do, though, is write. Unfortunately, that's too much for her father and Meg has been forbidden to set pen to paper if that paper is to fall into anyone’s hands but her own. And even that might have been all right if her best friend Anne’s brother Edmund hadn’t been captured by pirates. When Edmund tentatively displayed his affection for Meg before he left on a dangerous shipping voyage, she jokingly asked him to bring back a good story if he should become enslaved on his journey. You can imagine her guilt when that is exactly what happens to her unwanted beau. Out of guilt Meg helps raise the money to ransom Edmund, but when he returns he wants the world to know of the places he has been and the people he has seen. Furthermore, he wants Meg to write the narrative. Simultaneously finding herself attracted to her father’s apprentice Will and this newly determined Edmund, Meg must determine whether writing the book is worth the risk and which man she would prefer to love.
This is a bit embarrassing so I’ll just come out and say it. If I was an adolescent again, I am certain that I would enjoy “A True and Faithful Narrative” just as much as I used to enjoy Sunfire romances back in the day. I will explain why this is a compliment. Do you even remember Sunfire romances? These were basically historical G-rated romance novels written for teens, each one sporting a title that was the heroine’s name and each one taking place during a significant moment in the past. And in each book the heroine had to choose between two boys. Now I am NOT saying that “A True and Faithful Narrative” is equivalent to those books in any way shape or form. But the having to choose between two boys? Oh that is one of this title's finer selling points. Walking a delicate line, Ms. Sturtevant straddles the tween/teen readership with this sophisticated but kid-friendly tale. I do suspect that more fifteen-year-olds will read this book than their ten-year-old counterparts. That is not to say, however, that there isn’t something for everyone in Strutevant’s gripping (and woah-man-tic) tale.
Oh, and you know what was just so freakin’ amazing about this book? Zippo anachronisms. Couching her authentic terms within their easily understood context, Ms. Sturtevant can get away with referring to stuff like, “nightsoil” without sounding affected. More impressive, however is the fact that her heroine, Meg, has prejudices. She has prejudices fully in keeping with the time period in which she exists. How rare is that? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read recently where a girl living in a historical moment in time is twenty to 1,000 years ahead of her time in terms of feminism, racism, etc. Yes, in this book Meg fights against the restraints that held women in place in Restoration England, but her situation is obviously unique. Few women would have been able to read as Meg does and fewer still be able to write. Admittedly there were times in the book, such as when Meg was threatening her very existence with her rebellious nature, that made me want to urge her to throw in the towel. Yet at no time does she feel like a twenty-first century dame stuffed awkwardly into seventeenth century clothes.
And come to think of it, few authors could write as intelligently and methodically as Ms. Sturtevant and not sound dull. The sentence, “But what does it mean to say that something is owed to chance, when we do not know what governs chance itself?” is both thoughtful and though provoking. And yet I daresay it won’t cause a kid to scratch his or her head and put it down, never to return. Needless to say, children and YA librarians are going gaga over this title. It’s not just the fine writing that’s doing it either. I suspect that some of it has to do with the fact that Ms. Sturtevant spends a moderate amount of time concentrating on what it means to be a writer. When Meg begins to write Edward’s account she keeps imposing her own prejudices and assumptions on his true tale. She doesn’t want to hear the truth. She wants to hear her own version of the truth where Edmund embodied the brave and courageous Englishman. To hear that violence is not a romantic notion but a harsh and cruel reality changes her and, by extension, her writing. In this way Sturtevant is able to teach her heroine some of the basics of writing itself. When Edmund argues that his story diverges from the strict and literal truth at times (and here we’re getting into that James Frey debate, are we not?) Meg says of her words, “It does not matter, does it, who has written them, as long as they have been true? I do not mean true in every detail – how can that matter? But true in their essence, in their root, if you like. If our narrative is true, it will shine a light upon the place you were, and the people you met there.” When a person writes a memoir, what do you leave in and what do you take out? How do you justify each change? What change is more true than the facts themselves? And how many children’s books can you name that discuss this kind of topic in an intelligent and eminently readable fashion?
Is it reading too much into a book of this sort to say that “A True and Faithful Narrative” may be an especially timely book to write? At one point Edmund attempts to persuade Meg’s father that his story must be heard by the English public. Says he, “Would it not be well for those in London to learn something of these people, with whom we have more and more to do? There was a treaty signed in April, you know, between our kingdom and Algiers. Who knows what sort of future will follow?” Hmmm. Increased dealings with a Muslim culture and the desire that Westerners know more about people of other faiths and religions? Now why does that sound so familiar? You’ll forgive me, but it seems to me that “A True and Faithful Narrative” would make fabulous bookgroup conversation for kids and adults alike. One of the finer pieces of fiction I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. Heady, romantic, and satisfying.
Notes On the Cover: Created by artist Kelly Murphy, here we see Meg writing her book as her thoughts flicker shadow-like on the wall behind her. I was a big fan of Ms. Murphy’s work on Good Babies by Tim Myers and she has a fabulous website to boot. And I do like this cover, but I’m not sure if it fits the book’s tone. Looking at this you might get a vague sense of the pirates to come, but there’s little hint of the romance. Or am I stressing that aspect of the book more than I should? Hrm. In any case, this is nice but I’d have preferred something more along the lines of this. But then, that’s how I roll.