30 April, 2014

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier. Book review

Harper Collins 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-735034-6

The Last Runaway is set in Ohio in 1850. All the main characters are fictional.

Shy Quaker girl Honor Bright sails from her home in England to America, accompanying her sister who is going to join her husband-to-be. Honor herself is fleeing from having been jilted, hoping to start a new life in America. When her sister dies only a few days before reaching their destination, Faithwell in Ohio, Honor is left alone among strangers in a strange land. She finds an unexpected friend in the forthright milliner, Belle Mills, and a rather grudging acceptance among the small Quaker community of Faithwell. Ohio is still frontier country; most people are recently arrived and many are looking to move on in the future. It is also on the route used by runaway slaves from the Southern states, seeking to escape to freedom in Canada along the network known as the Underground Railroad. Honor’s conscience prompts her to help the runaways – but the Quaker family she has joined forbids her to break the law by doing so. Can Honor build a life for herself that will allow her to live with both her duty and her conscience?

The Last Runaway beautifully creates the world of small-town Ohio in the 1850s. Landscapes, buildings and way of life are described in detail, seen through the eyes of Honor to whom all is new and strange. As a result, this is a lovely book for the day-to-day detail of domestic life. Honor expects to earn her keep, and learns to apply her skill with a needle to hat-making and the unfamiliar American style of quilt-making, which uses applique designs in bold colours instead of the pieced patchwork of English quilting. Later, she turns her hand to the daily tasks of a dairy farm and the enormous amount of preserving required to store enough food to withstand an Ohio winter. I enjoyed the domestic detail, which I thought built up a convincing picture of Honor’s new world without ever becoming dull. However, I should add the caveat that I have an interest in needlework and have tried my hand and both patchwork and quilting, so these details appealed to me (and I picked up one or two useful tips from Honor and Belle). For readers without this interest, I could imagine that the detail might seem repetitive.

Honor also has to become accustomed to American social conventions – Americans are more ‘direct’ in their way of speaking (as Honor diplomatically puts it to herself) and more focused on their own concerns, compared with Honor’s previous community in England. The biggest contrast is the sense of impermanence Honor experiences in America. Coming from an established English town with a thousand years of history behind it, Honor finds the rootlessness of Ohio as disorienting as the harsh winters and the isolation. Most of the social differences, however disorienting for Honor, are relatively minor, leading to discomfort rather than disaster. The big exception is slavery. Honor abhors slavery. In England this was a simple principle to uphold, as slavery had already been abolished. In America, however, slavery is still a major part of the slave states to the south, even if not permitted in Ohio, and Honor comes into contact with it via the runaway slaves. Now she has to act on her principles, not merely think about them. If she gives aid to the runaways she risks ruin not just for herself but for her new family; if she does not, she has to live with her conscience. There is no easy answer.

Perhaps because the novel has a domestic focus, the women are the most strongly developed characters. Belle Mills in particular is a delight – generous, forthright, courageous and warm-hearted, she is just the sort of friend anyone would be glad to find in a strange country. By contrast, the men seemed almost interchangeable and a bit dull, with the exception of the rough slave-hunter Donovan who was by far the most lively and complex.

A useful Acknowledgements section at the back lists some suggestions for further reading for those who want to explore the underlying history.

Quietly insistent tale of an English Quaker girl trying adjust to a new life in small-town mid-ninenteenth-century Ohio, against the background of slavery and the Underground Railroad.

27 April, 2014

Newly-hatched mallard chicks

Mallard ducklings

A nestful of newly hatched mallard ducklings at Flatford Wildlife Garden.  Aren’t they sweet?

When I say newly hatched, I mean it. The mother duck was sitting on a nestful of eggs the night before, and when the volunteers came in next morning to open up, the nest was full of ducklings. Ten of them.

Before the garden opened to the public the same morning, the mother duck had chivvied her babies out of the nest and trotted them off to the river. With a bit of help from one of the volunteers who made her a temporary tunnel under the fence to lead the ducklings through.

(Mother ducks never seem to realise that although they can fly over fences and walls their babies can’t, and that picking a nest site in an enclosed area might not be the most inspired choice. Like the duck some years ago who decided to nest in the enclosed central courtyard of a prestigious office complex, so when the eggs hatched the caretaker had to carry the ducklings through the shiny glass atrium in a bucket with the mother duck quacking anxiously alongside. Fortunately the ‘aaah!’ factor of fluffy ducklings means human help is frequently on hand.)

These ducklings are now probably swimming about on the River Stour somewhere in Dedham Vale, delighting the visitors.

Flatford Wildlife Garden also has several nest boxes occupied by blue-tits and great-tits. Some of the nest boxes are fitted with cameras connected to TV screens in the visitor centre, so you can watch the chicks and the parent birds feeding them, without disturbing them.

Update (30 April): one set of great-tit eggs have hatched, so you can watch the chicks on screen, and the blue-tits are expected to hatch within a day or two.

Flatford Wildlife Garden is open every day from April to October, 10.30 am to 4.30 pm, free entry. Details on the website here

24 April, 2014

April recipe: Lemon cake

Lemon cake

The sharp, bright taste of lemon seems especially well suited to brisk spring days. This simple lemon cake is quick to make and always turns out well.  It is delicious served plain, or if you fancy something a bit more elaborate, it can be sliced in half and filled with lemon curd and/or lemon buttercream.

Here’s the recipe.

Lemon cake

8 oz (approx. 250 g) self-raising flour
3 oz (approx 75 g) light brown soft sugar
4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
1 egg
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) demerara sugar, optional

Grease a deep cake tin about 6 inches (approx 15 cm) in diameter.

Rub the butter into the flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Beat the egg, and add it to the mixture along with the lemon zest and lemon juice.

Mix well until smooth.

Put the mixture in the prepared cake tin and level the top. Sprinkle the top with 2 teaspoons of demerara sugar, if liked. This will give the cake a crunchy top.

Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 170-180 C for about 45 minutes to an hour until the cake is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack.

If liked, you can cut the cake in half horizontally and sandwich the halves back together with lemon curd and/or lemon buttercream.  Or you can serve the cake plain, which is what I normally do.

The cake will keep about a week in an airtight tin, and freezes well (freeze it plain, without the buttercream/ lemon curd filling).

04 April, 2014

The Lion Rampant, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-733790-3. 454 pages

Set in southern Scotland and Spain in 1314, The Lion Rampant is the third in Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, and covers the build-up to the Battle of Bannockburn and the battle itself. The main characters, Sir Hal Sientcler of Herdmanston and his household, are fictional. ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick, loyal henchman of Robert Bruce, is also fictional, although the fictional character is now starting to step into the role of the historical Roger Kirkpatrick.  Isabel MacDuff of Fife, formerly the Countess of Buchan, is based on a historical figure, although many details of her life and her eventual fate are not known. Other historical figures appear as important secondary characters, including Robert Bruce and his brother Edward, various Scots lords including Sir James Douglas (‘The Black Douglas’, or ‘The Good Sir James’, depending whether he was on your side), Edward II of England and various other English lords. 

In early spring 1314, Hal of Herdmanston has been held prisoner by the English garrison of Roxburgh Castle for seven years since his capture at the end of the previous novel, The Lion At Bay. His beloved Isabel MacDuff has been imprisoned for much the same time, in even harsher conditions (in a cage hung from the walls of Berwick Castle). During Hal’s imprisonment, Robert Bruce has been steadily fighting a guerilla war against his Scottish enemies and rivals, chiefly the Comyn family, and the English garrisons in Scotland. Now, after seven hard years, the Comyns are defeated and exiled, and the English presence in Scotland is largely confined to the garrisons of three great fortresses, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Stirling. When Roxburgh falls to a daring assault led by James Douglas, Hal of Herdmanston is freed. Returning to Robert Bruce to seek help in rescuing Isabel, he finds Bruce facing the prospect of a large-scale invasion of Scotland. Edward II of England is determined to crush Robert Bruce and independent Scotland once and for all. Unless Robert Bruce can source enough weapons to arm his soldiers by midsummer, he will have no chance against the English army – and there are only a few months left. And so Hal and ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick are despatched on a desperate mission to a Templar stronghold in Spain. Secrecy and speed are of the essence, for the fate of Scotland hangs on their success – but already there is the stink of treachery in the air...

The Lion Rampant concludes Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, which began with The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier) and continued with The Lion At Bay (reviewed here earlier). As well as bringing the war to its climax at Bannockburn, it also resolves the stories of the main characters, including Hal of Herdmanston, Isabel MacDuff and Dog Boy.

Like its predecessors, The Lion Rampant is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action. The fight scenes are gory, brutal and gruesomely convincing. Fittingly for a book published shortly before the 700th anniversary, the Battle of Bannockburn dominates the novel. All the famous set-piece scenes are there, from Robert Bruce’s duel with de Bohun to the decisive charge of the camp-followers.  The author has neatly contrived to place one of his main characters in each of the key components of the battle, so it is told from all sides, and stirring stuff it is. If you have ever tried to imagine what it might have been like to stand in a schiltrom of spearmen facing a charge of armoured knights; or to be one of those knights charging a forest of steel pikes; or a Welsh mercenary archer in Edward’s army, neither fully trusting in nor trusted by the English leaders; or a sensible veteran like the down-to-earth Yorkshire knight Marmaduke Thweng, watching with gloomy resignation as the squabbling nobles in high command precipitate disaster – this novel is for you.

The Templar sub-plot and the mystery of the traitor add an exotic diversion (best taken, as the author says about all things to do with the Templars in Scotland, “with a huge saline pinch”), and gives Hal and Roger something exciting to do while the rival armies are converging on Bannockburn. There is more of a nationalistic atmosphere to this novel than the previous two, partly because the Scottish civil war has largely been won by the Bruce faction (and partly, perhaps, reflecting the iconic status of Bannockburn in modern popular culture). However, the sense of the dense political background is retained. There are Scots lords from the defeated Comyn faction fighting with Edward II, the ‘English’ army contains considerable numbers of archers from Wales and mercenary soldiers from Hainault, and the simmering unrest among the English nobles – not all of which is due solely to inflated egos – is an ever-present menace.  Edward II is seen through the clear eyes of Marmaduke Thweng, who has sympathy for him and admires his courage, but who also has no illusions about Edward’s effectiveness either as king or war leader.

Characterisation is vivid and complex, with even minor characters swiftly sketched in as distinct individuals with their own fears and ambitions. Relationships can be equally complex and contradictory. Hal does not trust ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick (with good reason), yet the two are bound together by obligation and revenge, in “a tangle of sin and redemption that even God would have trouble unravelling”. Dog Boy has discovered his identity, Aleysandir of Douglas, and is now a warrior in his prime, "as daring as the Black Sir James, but better looking", as he says to more than one vanquished enemy. Yet the cruelty and the waste of war are taking a toll on him, and he wants nothing more than to settle to family life with Bet’s Meggy and be done with killing and destruction. Their love is a bright thread of joy running through the darkness of war, a counterpart to the bittersweet love affair between Hal and Isabel MacDuff.

An Author’s Note and a detailed character list at the back of the book outlines the underlying history, identifies the purely fictional characters, and acknowledges some of the liberties taken with historical figures.  For example, Isabel MacDuff’s fate is unknown, but the limited information suggests that it probably was not as depicted in the novel.  A sketch map at the front gives approximate locations for some of the places mentioned. I would have liked a more detailed plan of the battlefield at Bannockburn itself as imagined in the novel.  There is no glossary of Scots words and phrases, perhaps because the Scots dialect seems less pronounced in this novel than in the first one.

Gripping, violent action-adventure bringing this trilogy of the Wars of Independence to a rousing conclusion with the Battle of Bannockburn.