Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: The Brothers Story by Katherine Sturtevant (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

An interview with the author of this book will be featured in Friday's post!

Katherine Sturtevant's third novel for young people returns to 17th century England, this time to the winter of 1683-84, known as "The Great Frost," considered the worst frost for which we have historical records. The Thames froze solid, two feet thick, as well as the surrounding seas, rendering commerce very difficult.

In this historical context, Sturtevant spins the captivating story of two twin teenage boys, Kit and Christy. Identical in appearance, Christy has been simple since birth, and Kit, who narrates the story, is forced to look after his brother in every way. They are so poor that their mother puts them into service with a local wealthy family, where Kit cannot tolerate the way his brother is beaten and mistreated because of his disability. In desperation, he decides, despite the frigid cold, to run away to London, where he hopes to make his fortune or at least make a better life for himself without the burden of caring for his brother. He gets a stroke of luck when at an inn on the road, he meets two brothers, one an artist and the other a tailor to the London nobility. Joining their party, he goes into service with the artist, Nate.

Born and raised in a small Essex village, Kit is amazed at the sights and sounds of London. He is particularly attracted to the saucy serving maid Priscilla, who works for his master's brother. But he is especially mesmerized by the Frost Fair, a little village built on the frozen Thames, filled with booths offering refreshments, games, merchandise, and varied entertainment, including jugglers, puppet shows, acrobats, and rides on the ice. A whole ox was even roasted on a gigantic spit during the fair.

But of course Kit has not forgotten his brother, and he aches to know what has become of him and who, if anyone, is watching over him. When his fortunes change, and he has the opportunity to have a real apprenticeship, Kit must make a difficult choice between listening to his heart--where his brother still lays claim--and pursuing the possibility of a prosperous life for himself in London.

The story of Kit, his brother Christy, and the characters Kit encounters in London emerges through the frost that covered London with burning intensity. These are characters that you will take into your heart. The relationship between the twins, and the heartbreaking choices Kit has to make, ring very true and draw the reader into the story.

Moreover, the author provides many evocative and authentic tidbits of historical fact woven throughout the story. For example, it was so cold that birds fell out of the sky, frozen to death. "The piss had froze in the chamber pot and the ale in the bucket." She also incorporates very frank descriptions of teenage sexuality during this period, incorporating bawdy vocabulary that was definitely new to me. This language is not at all gratuitous, however, since the author has gone to great lengths to reconstruct the dialect of the time, particularly the way a young man of Kit's social class would have spoken. At first I found this dialect a bit jarring, but it truly brings Kit's voice to life in an authentic way.

The author writes on her website:
The most wonderful thing about historical novels is that they help us to imagine the lives of the people who came before us, people who lived very differently than we do today.
With The Brothers Story, Sturtevant certainly provides a novel that does just that.

Sturtevant's vivid descriptions allow us to imagine the Frost Fair in "our minds eye." However, I thought it would be fun to find a contemporary engraving of the Frost Fair. Other images of the Frost Fair can easily be found on-line. Or you can read more about the Frost Fair at Two Nerdy History Girls.

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