I was a big Cynthia Voigt fan as a kid – but not her realistic fiction. Homecoming depressed me, although I think I worked my way through the whole thing. I much preferred stories with some mystery or fantasy to them, so The Callender Papers really worked for me then (as did Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom, which I’ve yet to reread). Coming back to it as an adult, I know exactly why I enjoyed it then, but the mystery elements don’t work quite as well because the ending felt obvious.
But here’s why I liked it then: the historical setting adds atmosphere to the story, without being a huge part of the story. There’s a bit of a mystery that involves going through old papers and trying to figure out what really happened a generation back. It features an orphan. There’s some suspense and a sense of danger, but of course a happy ending. Now I’ve got to find time to reread Jackaroo…
I associate Rosemary Sutcliff with historical fiction that isn’t afraid to be dark and realistically intense – this isn’t historical fiction that necessarily makes you wish you lived long ago, but you end up feeling like you got an honest picture of the time. The characters never feel modern, the endings aren’t necessarily happy, but you feel like you met the real Boudicca.
Told primarily from the point of view of Boudicca’s harpist, the story follows the queen from her childhood. I don’t know what kind of research Sutcliff did, or what her background is, but all the details of her way of life add up to a believable picture of early Britain. Interspersed are letters from a Roman soldier to his mother in Gaul, giving some bigger picture information and providing a fascinating contrast in viewpoints. We understand Boudicca’s reasoning through her harpist, and we see how the Romans viewed this local uprising through the solider’s letters.
A captivating story, but ultimately it was (understandably) difficult to feel much connection to the characters. What can I say, I’m a character-driven reader.