Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

Cecily grew up at Edgeley Hall in England, but when her uncle comes back from the Crusades, her father decides, rather than acting as his brother's steward, he will move to Caernarvon in English occupied Wales where he can own his own land and house.  Cecily is less than happy about moving to barbaric Wales.  Gwenhwyfar's life was destroyed by the coming of the English.  Her people are starving around her, and she is forced to work in a house and on land she once owned.

This was heavy.  Seriously heavy.  This is a middle grade book, but I want to be clear that the violence and assault that happens is detailed.  Not in a sensationalized way, but certainly graphic.

This was another period of history I knew very little about.  In the later 1200s, Wales pretty much became a colony of England, under King Edward.  Stone cities were built that English colonists could live in, effective protected from the Welsh people by guarded stone walls.  Of course, there were rebellions, and the one The Wicked and Just details was the first one, which happened in 1294 and was led by Madog ap Llywelyn.

Cecily was such an interesting character.  In some ways she was a sympathetic character, and in other ways you just want to slap her.  She grew up in a manor house in England and was used to certain things.  She wanted to be a lady of a house.  She expected servants to never look her in the eye.  That's just the way things were.  So she was determined, in this strange new place she's in, homesick, to at least be lady of the house.  Other families look down on her and her father because they are new.  It is very difficult for her to fit in.  The women of the other houses think Cecily is rough and will never be a lady.  So I felt sorry for her.

But then, she was also such a brat!  There she is, struggling with her insignificant problems, while all around her the Welsh people are starving and doing whatever they can just to survive.  Gwenhwyfar works in what is now Cecily's home.  Cecily hates her, because she doesn't act like a servant she's used to.  Gwenhwyfar hates Cecily because Cecily is one of the English that has stolen her home.  Gwenhwyfar doesn't think of herself as a servant.  She's just doing what she has to do to get a little money so she can pay off the English tax collectors and get a little food.  We hear how men abuse her, and fell it's their right to do whatever they want with whatever Welsh girl they want.

Before the rebellion, Cecily begins to see some of the injustices done to the Welsh people, and how things are not quite fair.  She begins to be more sympathetic toward Gwenhwyfar.  Cecily can't imagine how much she is hated.  Cecily also has fun tormenting Gwenhwyfar's brother, although she is unaware he is her brother, which fills Gwenhwyfar with rage.

Gwenhwyfar's life is detailed, to how if a Welshman can't pay taxes, they're stock is taken.  How they have to pay to come into the city to sell things in the market.  How they aren't allowed to sell things anywhere but the market.  All these rules are set up to help the English and hurt the Welsh.  These rules are, in fact, not coming from the King, but from the greedy officials in charge of the city.

The rebellion is incredibly violent.  The streets run with blood.  Cecily's father is killed and hung naked out a window.  Soldiers, women, children are all killed.  Cecily manages to get out of the city and hide, where she's found by Gwenhwyfar's brother, who brings her home.  Gwenhwyfar would have been happy to see her dead, but her brother says no.  No the roles are reversed, and Cecily now is Gwenhwyfar's servant.

It's a dark, sad story, full of violence and injustice.  And was the rebellion justice?  Everyone knows the English soldiers will come and things will go back to the way they were before.  Will there be any differences?  This was really an excellent book, that really made you think about the character of people and how people treat each other.

This might be a hard sell, however.  There's no romance to offset the violence.  Middle grade students of historical fiction might be interested to read about a period that seldom gets written about, but you probably want to give a heads up that there's more detailed violence than most.

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