Friday, June 10, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: Matilda Bone

Another treasure unearthed during Miss Lemon's recent move is Matilda Bone (2000), a first-rate historical novel for children, now mostly forgotten, by Karen Cushman.

Well, perhaps this novel is not so much forgotten as overshadowed by Ms. Cushman's other historical works, particularly The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, for which she won the Newbery Medal and the Newbery Honor awards.

In this novel, we meet Matilda, orphaned by her natural parents and raised by Father Leufredus in a comfortable estate, as she's unceremoniously dropped in Blood and Bone Alley in a small village between nowhere and nothing, while Father Leufredus takes himself off to Oxford and higher learning.

Sure that he'll be back for her, Matilda turns up her nose at Red Peg, the bonesetter, of Blood and Bone Alley, her trade and the miserable cottage she lives in. Made to sweep the floors, stoke the fires and mix the poultices, Matilda spends her time mumbling about injustice and praying for deliverance. 

What, one may well ask, does this children's fiction have to do with British mystery? Well, for Miss Lemon at least, the medieval period of our history has always been a source of fascination and mystery. So many myths abound: that most all people living in the so-called dark ages were peasants, a hoi polloi who were dirty, ignorant, inept and indigent hovel dwellers without wit, sense or taste.

Matilda Bone makes short work of most of our modern misperceptions in a way that is wry and poignant. Miss Lemon especially likes the heroine of this novel, Matilda, because she, like (let's face it) all modern children, is deeply flawed, especially in her inflated sense of self. Always aiming 'for higher things,' like her idolized Father Leufredus, Matilda soon sees that calling on the saints and speaking in Latin do little to help avoid being bilked at the fish market or comfort an ailing friend.

It's sad that we, and Matilda, never hear from Father Leufredus again. But his untimely exit leaves the door open for Matilda to learn the difference between theory and practicality; and she grows, albeit stubbornly, to appreciate a few small joys of this earthly realm.

Matilda Bone, Miss Lemon thinks, is a gentle yet absorbing reminder that those who lived in 1143 are scarcely different from we who live today. Egoism, superstition, deception and fraud were just as alive then as they are today. So were intelligence, compassion and genuine friendship.

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