I just found out that it has been a year since this wonderful book was published, so we are going to celebrate that anniversary (and the looming publication of its paperback version) with my long-overdue review.
Near the end of the 13th century, King Edward I of England brought Wales under English dominion. He constructed a series of castles and fortified towns which make up many of the iconic ruins tourists visit to this day. Then he encouraged his nobles to move there to maintain the peace and quell the populace in case they got any notions about wresting back control.
Thus, a landless lord could find the status, wealth and property in Wales that he could not have in England.
Cecily’s father decides to try his luck with King Edward’s scheme. Cecily is less than overjoyed: “Tonight at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life.”
Furious at her father for uprooting her from the life she knows and loves, she swears she will never speak to him again; she will not eat. She flounces down to dinner, determined to ignore him and eat nothing. And yet, as she eats — EATS — in silence, her father merely observes how delightfully quiet it has become.
I adore Cecily. How can you not love someone this wonderfully self-centered, this charmingly unaware of her own faults, this wickedly spoiled, this sure-to-be-set-down arrogant? You can’t help but laugh, and you know within moments that Cecily’s journey will be fun to watch.
Upon the family’s arrival in Caernarvon, a walled city in Wales, we meet Gwenhwyfar, another indelible personality. Gwenhwyfar — or Gwenny, as Cecily calls her, uncomfortable with the “barbaric” Welsh tongue — becomes a maid in Cecily’s house because, with the English occupation, life has turned upside down and Gwen’s family needs the money.
I adore Gwenhwyfar too, though she is a tougher nut to crack. She doesn’t want your love; in fact, she doesn’t want anything to do with you. Her fury at her situation burns through every word of her spare prose; her resentment bristles in every clipped, sharp line. “Almost a bucket of milk,” she says, getting ready to pay the English tax collectors. “Mayhap it will be enough… Bucket in my hand sways like a hanged man as I set off…”
But it turns out that Gwenhwyfar and Cecily need each other. One motif of medieval philosophy is the ever turning Wheel of Fortune, and if one day you are happily up on top, the next day, you can be down at the bottom. In this book, Fortune’s Wheel keeps spinning — you can almost hear it grinding away over your shoulder as you read — and wealthy Cecily, who thinks she suffered in coming to Caernarvon, learns to her sorrow what real suffering is. And while their fortunes shift and change, the girls learn about themselves: who they truly are (not always a pleasant discovery) and who they want to become.
One of the best things about this book is its universality. Teenage girls are teenage girls, whether it’s 1293 or 2013, and Coats has captured the emotional truth of that here. Gwen and Cecily are real, relatable girls despite the fact that the world they live in is as foreign to most of today’s teens as the surface of Pluto. But their struggles? Their fears? Their strength and their growth? These are things that every girl can understand.
Also, the history here is palpable. Every page is steeped in it, and yet it is handled so skillfully you don’t feel bludgeoned by it. A pet peeve of mine is the manner in which so many historical novelists explain things that their characters would take for granted. (How many times have you needed to explain to someone what a cell phone is?) Yet too many historical novelists feel compelled to describe in detail period clothing or food. This drives me crazy as a reader. In contrast, Coats writes with tremendous knowledge but also with tremendous respect for her readers.
Let me offer an example from the very first page. Simply by its tone, you should be able to tell it’s Cecily speaking. She is angry with her father about the move to Wales.
“I’m in my chamber now. I will never speak to him again.
Unless he buys me a new pelisson for the journey.”
First of all, you should be laughing. But aside from that, I ask you, what is a “pelisson”? Do you know?
From the context, I can surmise that a pelisson is an article of clothing. From reading Jane Austen, I know that a “pelisse” is a kind of jacket. So, I’m fairly comfortable thinking it’s some kind of jackety-thingy.
And if I really want, in a few keystrokes I can look it up on the internet (which I did).
So I’m good. Because what matters here is what these two beautiful lines tell me about Cecily.
But how many times have you read a book where the author feels compelled to do more: “Unless he buys me a new pelisson, which is a fur waistcoat, for the journey.” Oh, author, you just killed it. And not in a good way.
In “The Wicked and the Just,” we learn about 13th century Wales, not because the author beats us down with details, but because she requires us to get involved. She demands that I live in Caernarvon too: that I pull on my kirtle (and my pelisson), milk my cow and wade through the mud to pay my taxes along with everyone else.
That is a tremendous gift, one of the many Coats has to offer. You want this book.
“The Wicked and the Just” by J. Anderson Coats; Harcourt; 2012. Find the author here: http://www.jandersoncoats.com/