Monday 20 November 2023

The Wistful and the Good - G.M. Baker - Cuthbert’s People Book 1

The Wistful and the Good
Cuthbert’s People Book 1
Stories All the Way Down
ISBN 9781778066306
eISBN 9781778066313

This is the first volume I have read from the pen of G.M. Baker but it will not be the last. The prose remind me of those of Alistair MacLeod and a little of Robertson Davies. This is a story filled with romance, risk, intrigue and a string mix of faith, family and loyalty. The description of the story is:

“The mighty are undone by pride, the bold by folly, and the good by wistfulness.

Elswyth's mother was a slave, but her father is a thegn, and Drefan, the man she is to marry, is an ealdorman's son. But though Elswyth is content with the match, and waits only for Drefan to notice that she has come to womanhood, still she finds herself gazing seaward, full of wistful longing.

From the sea come Norse traders, bringing wealth, friendship, and tales of distant lands. But in this year of grace 793 the sea has brought a great Viking raid that has devastated the rich monastery of Lindisfarne, only a day's journey north of Elswyth's village of Twyford. Norse are suddenly devils incarnate in Northumbria, and when Elswyth spots a Norse ship approaching the beach, her father fears a Viking raid.

But the ship brings trouble of a different kind. Leif has visited Twyford many times as a boy, accompanying his father on his voyages. But now he returns in command of his father's ship and desperate to raise his father's ransom by selling a cargo of Christian holy books. There could be no more suspect cargo in the days after the Lindisfarne raid and when Drefan arrives, investigating reports of the sighting of a Norse ship, Elswyth must try to keep the peace between Drefan and Leif.
But Elswyth's wistful heart has found a new and perilous object.”

The main story focuses around a small village on the shores of England. A young woman Elswyth is to marry Drefan and thus secure her family’s safety and in some cases freedom. And then there is Leif the childhood friend and now young man trying to raise a ransom to rescue his father. There is much that can be lost. And for all there is risk and danger. 

In the historic note at the end of the volume Baker begins with:

“This book contains historical errors. Some I am aware of, some, doubtless, will be painfully obvious to scholars of the period, but most of them will remain unknown or at least unprovable. The Anglo-Saxon period lasted over 600 years and yet we have less data about it than we do about a single modern day. How the daughter of an ordinary thegn would have lived and thought and hoped and strived, we can really only guess at. The written records we have relate mostly to royal and monastic houses. The archeology is full of hints and suggestions, and a great deal of wonderful jewelry and art, but little to suggest the specifics of the life of what we might best describe as a middle-class young woman. An enormous amount of Anglo-Saxon scholarship has been done and is being done, but it yields little in the way of consecutive historical narrative such as we would associate with other periods of history. Rather, through the interpretation of scattered documents, excavations, and placename studies, combined with analogies to other times and places, certain patterns of life and practice emerge, though tentatively at best. Reading histories of the period, one often gets the impression that one is reading a book made entirely of footnotes, since most books devote most of their text to discussing specific sources and their possible interpretations, rather than constructing what we might usually think of as an historical narrative. 

Even where we do have written records, the meaning of terms is often hard to pin down. A “hide” of land seems to mean different things at different times and places. What “peaceweaver” meant does not seem entirely clear between the sources in which I have encountered it. I have interpreted it to suit my dramatic purposes.

For a novelist, this is in part frustrating and in part liberating. To assemble a whole picture of the life and thought of my characters, I have had to borrow elements from different times and places, select from various interpretations what best suits my dramatic purposes, and fill in the gaps with things borrowed from later times (the tugging of forelocks as a sign of respect, for instance).”

The characters are well written. And the story has a great plot with many twists and some surprises. It was intriguing watching as Elswyth came to understand her true feelings, and where her heart laid. Lief’s loyalty to his code is valiant. And to be honest Drefan seems like a spoiled rich kid you can meet in any day and age. Elswyth’s mothers and fathers trying to do the right thing, for the right reasons might not be enough. 

If the prose reminded me of Davies and MacLeod the story reminds me of the historic fiction of Jack Whyte. It was a great first novel. And I would look at others in the series or from Baker without thought. I can easily recommend this volume for those who like historical fiction, or those who just love a good story.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2023 Catholic Reading Plan!

Books by G.M. Baker:
Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight

Cuthbert’s People Series:
St. Agnes and the Selkie
The Needle of Avocation

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