Book Review: The Colour of Treason

The Colour of Treason by S. M. Harrison
A Studied Look at the Kingmaker

 “They have but two rulers in England: Monsieur de Warwick and another whose name I have forgotten.”–The Governor of Abbeville, letter written March 1464 to King Louis XI, King of France

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For those familiar with the major players within the Wars of the Roses, the epigraph for S.M. Harrison’s The Colour of Treason will be rather telling. Fought during the 15th century, this series of dynastic wars set Yorkists against Lancastrians in an ongoing bid for the throne of England. At the time of which Harrison writes, Henry VI (Lancaster) has been succeeded by Edward, a charismatic leader who inherited his father’s claim to the throne following the latter’s death at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. The novel opens eight years after Edward has realized what his father, Richard, Duke of York, died pursuing.

The younger Plantagenet, now Edward IV, by this point has spent most of his reign defending his throne. Henry’s queen, Marguerite d’Anjou, bitterly opposes the king and obsessively chases after the crown, which she believes to be the birthright of her young son, Edouard. Owing to her husband’s bouts with insanity, she had at times ruled in the king’s place, and also led Lancastrian factions when waging war to keep or reclaim her family’s position. Now, however, she sits in exile, a status reflected by her appearance only later in the book.

ElizabethWoodvilleKing Edward’s position is not as secure as one would hope, in part thanks to Marguerite’s relentless aim to unseat him. He has had, though, a strong alliance with his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would be known later in history as “Warwick the Kingmaker.” Warwick, the most powerful nobleman and military commander of his time, and second only to the king in wealth, attempted to negotiate a treaty with the French to secure a bride for Edward, only to learn the king had secretly married a widow, Elizabeth Wydville. This duplicity, as well as the rank nepotism that now pervades the court, incites Warwick’s great ire, leading to a split between the cousins as well as events that color the lives and fates of Elizabeth Hardacre and her York-supporting family.

Awakened in the night by clattering horse hooves chased by the roar of thunder, Elizabeth spies a mysterious visitor, none other than a Warwick messenger who has her mother, Lady Catherine, on edge. As Sir John de Laverton explains her family’s now-precarious position, linked to letters authored by her father Sir Robert, Elizabeth experiences conflicting emotions for the knight and is bewildered by her mother’s ill treatment of the midnight visitor. Mysterious words of past events from her nurse as well as her mother intrigue Elizabeth, though she learns nothing save that her father is now suspected of treason. Without explanation, Elizabeth is sent to live with her cousin, Matthew, realizing later that she is essentially hostage to Warwick’s endeavors to route out her father’s intentions. Warwick’s actions result from his attempt to ensure Sir Robert Hardacre maintains co-operation for the safety of his daughter.

Elizabeth, initially believing she will be wed to her cousin, conflicts with him, his lack of fortitude and Laverton, who appears to play the role of her jailer, albeit a familiar one. Disgusted by his drunken and lascivious habits, the girl attempts to expel her simultaneous attraction to him, determining she will escape in order to seek out her father, imprisoned by the Earl of Warwick. In so doing she carries out a semi-premeditated crime, commencing life on the run as a felon.

In only one other work of fiction has this reviewer read of a woman making her way through the crime-infested nighttime roads and forests of 16th century England. While it surely must have occurred, portraying it presents a challenge in that predictable outcomes stand a high chance of falling victim to the stereotypical, whilst the opposite might smack of the fantastical. Harrison wisely chooses the middle way in allowing Elizabeth to be captured, though she must learn to be comfortable with deception as a travel mate.

Just then he noticed her. She was well camouflaged in her dark green cloak against the bark of the trees. She looked almost like a young sapling, at one with the forest. Her hair was the colour of autumn and it fell in waves about her shoulders. 

Shortly before Thomas Conyers catches up to Elizabeth, he wonders if she might be a witch, so deftly does she unify with the forest and escape him. Given what we know of this era, it is a reasonable contemplation to assign to a character, but Harrison declines to rely on this typecast, instead portraying Elizabeth as a liar by necessity. She has, after all, had time in life to develop a colorful imagination, and her time on the lam surely has been used wisely by coming up with a cover story.

As events move on Elizabeth, becoming more and more entangled with people and places, manages to make contact with Warwick, though not in the way she might have anticipated. Rather than perceiving him as enemy to herself and her family, she both acts out her own will—questioning all that she knew and believed before—and is submerged into events that color what and how she sees, as “a shudder ripple[s] through her. . . like a wave lapping at the shore, a tide demanding to be turned by the moon.” Questioning herself, she wonders:

Were they not similar, Warwick and her? They both had secrets they could not divulge. . .his eyes held a light within them all of their own, like moonlight reflected on a dark lake[.]

Throughout the novel Harrison utilizes color to itself color how moments and events are perceived and even foretold. At one point Warwick caresses “a mutinous autumn-coloured curl from her cheek”; later he remembers how Edward the ungrateful king has ignored and embarrassed him, and that his chronic lack of gratitude causes him to forget Warwick and all he has accomplished.

He saw the green of the grass turn to black and the twilight turn to darkness and he wondered how his discord with Edward had come to this. How had the youth who had relied on him after the death of his father come to despise him so much? How could he have forgotten that it was Warwick who had saved his life after the route at Ludford by whisking him away to safety at his fortress of Calais?. . . [He let] the white rose fall from his hand. As he did so he noticed that it had pricked him; a single drop of red blood bubbled on his thumb. 

Indeed the novel very much promotes Warwick as a sympathetic character, a portrait that elicits mixed feelings: the earl fails to recognize or appreciate his power in terms of its influence and responsibility he must bear as the holder of authority; instead he deflects a great deal of that responsibility and his selfish actions hurt many of those around him, including his little daughter Anne. As Clarence also is portrayed as rather bumbling—sometimes almost comically so within miniature tragedies—Warwick is prone to collect on the moment and seems to sometimes enjoy his son-in-law’s failures. Having said that, it is easy to admire Harrison’s adroit management of Warwick’s emotions, conceits, hurts, anger, shortcomings and desires. She presents aspects of the Kingmaker, more individual and emotive sides often lost beneath tales of ambition as well as the clatter and anonymity of Barnet weaponry and chaos. The repulsion and attraction Elizabeth feels for him remembers that for Jack de Laverton and her own confusion and guilt.

In the end, much of what so many characters predicted comes to pass and Elizabeth accedes to their judgments. Too much tragedy has occurred within Elizabeth’s own sphere, and she has witnessed the corruption of power. Like so much else, including her emotions, what colors treason and other acts of men engages a heartbreaking duality in which beauty and monstrosity both reside. It brings her to a place in which she must make a devastating choice, and the favor of one shall destroy the other.

The Colour of Treason, winner of the indieBRAG medallion, is followed by a sequel, A Rose of England, which continues Elizabeth’s narrative and answers some of the questions raised hitherto, including that of what her mother knew and what secrets motivate Higgins. As enrapturing as this novel is, and how successfully Harrison brings readers to examine Warwick on a deeper level, it is very likely they will not want to miss the rest of his complex story.


Alaska Day Book Review: Remembering an Extraordinary Arctic Rescue

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure
by Martin W. Sandler

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In March of 1867, after a long and arduous debate resulting in what was then labeled “Seward’s Folly,” the United States acquired by purchase from Russia the Alaska Territory. Later that year, on October 18, the formal transfer occurred in Sitka: with the lowering of Russian flag and raising of American, an area twice the size of Texas now belonged to the United States for the bargain price of $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre. Less than 20 years later many of those who had openly mocked the purchase would be flocking to Alaska, seeking gold and creating boomtowns.

Whaling at this time was also a lucrative occupation, albeit uncomfortable and dangerous. In so entering the territory of this trade, including coastal northern Alaska in the Arctic Circle, sailors submitted to what historical author Martin W. Sandler refers to as “the harshest and most dangerous environment in the world, an immense region of ice and snow with temperatures that fell to as low as sixty degrees below zero, a place where a person’s every step might very well be his last.”

These are the conditions we find in Sandler’s The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure, children’s non-fiction that commemorates a type of endurance hardly imaginable in its scope and requirements. Consider: Several whaling ships caught in Arctic pack ice in September 1897; one manages to escape and make its way to San Francisco, where her captain informs the world what has happened. About three hundred men are trapped in the northern reaches with no way of knowing how much of their story has or will reach the outside world, let alone whether they can be rescued.

In a state where even today only 20% of the land is accessible by road, people still marvel at this story, this attempt to rescue those trapped in a place too frozen to sail away from, with too little food and shelter, unbearably cold and cramped quarters and conditions rife with the makings of disease and despair. In 1897 it was a rare person who believed it could happen, but how? Flight was not yet a reality and shipping was out of the question. The remaining option, if it could be called such, was an overland rescue effort. Owing to Alaskan conditions—mountainous, frozen, uneven and unforgiving terrain—this type of trek even today would consist of grueling marches through a country known for storms so severe they destroyed sleds and blinded one from seeing just ahead; even minor injury to dog or human would devastate the entire enterprise.

The wonder of it all is not only that the above-mentioned conditions and frightening possibilities are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of what must be endured in such a colossal effort, but also that three men actually did it. First Lieutenant David Jarvis, Commander of the Overland Relief Expedition, Dr. Samuel Call and Second Lieutenant Ellsworth Bertholf together and separately journeyed 1,500 miles, working alone and with others along the way to secure the relief and freedom of 300 in peril of their lives. The conditions horrific and possibilities for failure endless, the three men nevertheless move forward to a simply impossible rescue that for them could only end one way.

For this reason today’s post is as much a celebration of the human spirit as it is book review. An Alaskan story on this, the day Alaskans celebrate their land, we remember those who lived these stories as they unfolded. Indeed they are multiple stories, as Sandler points out, for the three rescuers could not under any circumstances have completed this mission of their own accord. Along the way they had help from a multitude of sources, not least of which were the Native peoples living in the regions through which they passed. Two major figures in Alaskan lore and history, Charlie Artisarlook and Tom Lopp, whose reindeer herds lay along the route the men followed, allowed the rescuers use of the animals as transportation and later, sustenance for the trapped and hungry men freezing in the cold and dark north. A multitude of others contributed in ways small and grand to make the mission a success, providing materials as well as instruction and understanding of the ways of living amongst various Native tribes. All would prove invaluable to the daring operation.

Occurring some 50 years after the advent of photography, the story is told in large part by the images of Dr. Call, who recorded the trio’s odyssey in pictures. Nearly every page of this coffee-table styled book contains a fascinating visual, including those of the wrecked ships, the creaking groans of which had been described as “a frightful sound” and certainly worse to escape. Conditions, too, were noted in his images as well as the words of reports, diaries, journals, letters and memories.

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“[O]ne who has not spent a winter in the Arctic can scarcely conceive the terrible conditions which exist. . . The snow falls dry and flakey, and even after it has lain for many months it does not pack sufficiently hard to support a man’s weight much of the time. . .Upon the steep slopes and in the jagged mountains the same conditions exist, but even worse, for here large, jagged rocks and deep crevices make most of the country impassible.” Indeed Jarvis, Call and Bertholf for most of the mileage they covered with dogs had to break trail and run alongside the animals to fight tipover. Sledding with reindeer, though faster, had its own challenges.

Classified as a children’s book, it will appeal to readers of all ages with interest in the Arctic (or even Antarctic, as a precursor to the Shackleton expedition), adventure, history, Alaskana, Native cultures, survivor stories or photography. The story is told mostly in a linear fashion, which research suggests boys—a demographic whose readership percentages lessen as they approach the middle-school years—tend to prefer. Almost like a journal itself, the work’s layout also consists of images of such historical significance as promissory notes, official orders and lists of provisions.

Sandler wastes no time in the story’s telling, and the book’s pace reflects the speed with which serious concerns develop and need to be addressed. Periodically he returns the reader to scenes at the top of Alaska, including via a lone traveller unaware of the approaching rescuers but determined to get out and tell the world of their plight. It is a technique that magnifies the uncertainty faced by each of the major parties—rescuers and trapped—and their isolation from one another, for there was absolutely no communication between the two.

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Sailing the Bear, built in Scotland in 1874 and especially constructed to withstand heavy ice, the rescue party initially make their way past St. Lawrence Island and aim to put in on the south side of Cape Prince of Wales peninsula in the morning of December 13, over three months after the whalers were stranded. “In the afternoon, however,” writes captain Tuttle, “considerable drift ice began to make its appearance. Knowing that as soon as the wind died out the sea would go down and the [drift] ice would form into a solid mass which it would be impossible to get through. . . I went. . . full speed [south].” As the skipper gets his ship safely away, his men see the ice between their position and the cape had turned solid. They later land in Tununak, which adds 700 miles to the Overland Expedition’s journey.

Amongst the inevitable questions following adventures, there always seem to be those seeking to track the main players. Sandler has anticipated this and provides an aptly-named “What Happened to Them” section following the main work. Delightfully, “Reindeer” are included in the cast–for even they had an enormous role to play and without them the mission probably could not have started, let alone continued. Like so many in the Great Land, they gave their lives as a sacrifice to save others. Their human partners, as we learn, go on to triumph and tragedy, some of which readers, children as well as adult, will make connections to from previous information or knowledge.

The incredible journey undertaken by Jarvis, Call and Bertholf (et al.) is but one illuminating the spirit of a land that puts a necessary premium not only on working together, but also attempting creative solutions when none other will be found. Unforgettable stories, amasingly, are a huge part in the fabric of Alaskan life, and such tales continue to be passed down through generations because those people are who we are, no matter where they came from. This dual sentiment of history and diversity lives in the celebration of Alaska Day when we remember the historical significance of an Alaska with a new future, then as now, and the people who grew this pioneering country into what it has become–and those who shape what it shall be.

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The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        —by Martin W. Sandler

Publisher: Candlewick (September 11, 2012)

ISBN:10: 9780763650803

ISBN-13: 978-0763650803

ASIN: 0763650803

Flashback Friday: Hiraeth

Tonight brings us once more to memories, those which have been lingering since some weeks now as if they are starved for attention. In this time, largely because some of my child’s interests and questions have transported me back to when I was his age, recalling what I spent my time doing and reading about, I have been re-visiting a great deal of personal scribblings that I’ve carried around the world. At one time I read a lot of Jan Morris, whose writing introduced me to hiraeth, a Welsh word that according to the University of Wales, Lampeter encompasses a “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an the earnest desire for the Wales of the past.” While I am not Welsh, as a teenager I related to the feeling as I had always had a sensation of being strongly attached to those who came before me, as well as the land they and we had once inhabited–meaning the land itself but also what it once was in contrast to what it had become. When I walked through it I somehow felt the sensations of other beings, as if I were remembering them from times past, and was mournful over our ruptured bonds, longing for the connections to re-establish.

As I have discovered, there are a number of poems addressing hiraeth, one from Tim Davis, the first line of which speaks of the direction one might receive from the sensation. While Davis’s poem attempts to define, mine seeks words for the emotions I had been experiencing. I do not pretend to understand it completely, or connect myself with a land I do not know. I could only, then and now, express relief that someone actually had a word for my feelings and, having no other, I took hold.


Slowly in the curling evening fog
An evasive enchantment wistfully rolls
A sigh moves it slowly upwards

A dismal rainshadow hangs overhead
Then lets flow a mournful flood of sorrow
If eternity could tell its tale

Once more the call of Gwydion echoes
Silently through a valley and a peak
Which absorbs the everlasting grace

Freely called, though few discern
Longing rumbles distant in Time
Moving through the ages

The unspoken passage of messages here
Erupts the natural instinctive sense
Enthralls for a lifetime, and then lets go

Bonding With Books: Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer

Every year at the start of school I gift my son his Schultüte, a small gift bag with goodies, school supplies, etc., a sort of “welcome to the new school year” packet of treats. It has evolved from the traditional cone to a gift bag, partly because he adores those sacks, but also because from the get-go books, which don’t fit into a cone very well, have always been part of the deal. This year I shopped at the eleventh hour, but got incredibly lucky.

One of the titles he hasn’t yet read, and two others, The Young Merlin Trilogy: Passager, Hobby and Merlin and Sword of the Rightful King, both by Jane Yolen, have been big hits. (Interestingly, the greater inspiration to read them came from the BBC Adventures of Merlin series.) The last book, admittedly, I chose purely for myself: the subject matter is one he’d never really brought up as an interest, though he did know about it. Moreover, I loved the sweeping beauty of the work and felt it crucial for my child to learn more about this significant figure in history. I try not to force particular books on him, and have learned that nine times out of ten, owing largely to his insatiable curiosity about the world, he will at some point make his way to a work I have chosen (and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t). In so doing I wonder: will he see himself in the book, possessing the same hunger for knowing and deep drive to understand the mechanics of the world, as did Leonardo da Vinci?

With this post I launch a new series called “Bonding with Books.” My intention is to highlight with each entry a particular book I find contains a sparkle that will mesh well with what Mem Fox refers to as “reading magic“: developing a continuing bond with children through reading to them, an act that from the time they are born does more to facilitate brain growth than any costly or elaborate educational tool parents could ever purchase. Each post will contain a relevant quote from Fox’s book Reading Magic: Why Reading to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, aiming to spotlight the bond children develop with books they explore and love, as well as that achieved between parent and child when this event occurs on a continual basis. Though unseen, the magic that happens truly is larger than life. My own child is now ten years old; I’ve been reading to him since before he was born and today he and the process of reading magic continue to render me awestruck.

Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer

by Robert Byrd

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When I first spotted Beautiful Dreamer, I was attracted straight away, though it didn’t initially occur to me to wonder why it was grouped with classics for young adults–its appearance, after all, is that of a picture book. In size it measures the standard 12″ by 9″ of a younger child’s book, and the cover bears loads of pictures drawn in a style generally attractive to and favored by the 32-page set. All of which is not to take away from its beauty: Leonardo, flying through the sky surrounded by a border of images reminiscent of his life. Of course the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, as well as pictures of the polymath studying, observing, drawing, appearing at court, and more, all feature on the spectacular front cover.

Once I turned Beautiful Dreamer open, I quickly found that every inch of page in this treasure is a feast: the first inside pages are a rich purple inlaid with da Vinci quotes in a soothing and delightful white font to contrast against the dark background. The body matter also supplies a number of quotes, one of which contains an especially wonderful message for children:

The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird alighting upon it
The surface of the sea is moved by a small drop of water falling upon it

Perhaps it was this moment in which I knew I had to have this book, for this message is one that all children deserve to know, and how I wished to pass it on! Moreover, when part of a book read to a child, navigating through the metaphor alone could bring on a great sense of satisfaction. The genius of this particular phrase is that the amount of feel-good in deciphering the message is likely to be in direct proportion to how much it is needed. Surely Leonardo understood human nature very well, including those who may have more than enough self-esteem, and so the message is paired with the urging to act upon it: You can achieve great things, he seems to be whispering across time, along with: Do! Do!

The book goes on to introduce readers to Leonardo, his interests, habits, achievements, delights, talents and abilities–all from childhood to his later years and death, said to be in the arms of Francis I. Through a series of sidebars the author also presents readers with interesting facts about Leonardo and his times, such as the purchase of the Mona Lisa by Francis, hence why the painting today hangs in France, and not Italy. These and other bits of information presenting throughout the book provide absolutely perfect jumping-off points (or continuity) for children and parents to discuss in a relaxed and fun way what they are reading and the connections children will make. Leonardo’s interests also seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to those of most children: the natural world, animals, how things work and are made, mysteries, flight and grand plans to name but a few. Leonardo, like many children, dreamed of planning and doing a number of projects.

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Each section is arranged to take up facing pages before it moves on to the next, which renders the book utterly readable as bedtime material because in terms of length, it is most definitely not a picture book. The pages are set up to avoid formulaic or repetitive frame placement, which in itself makes the pages simply much more interesting as an exploration. Moreover the detail and vibrant, rich colors in the pictures engage the eye, offering a multitude of opportunities for children and parents to discuss details or make a game of finding or perhaps naming certain items–or whatever other games might strike their sharing fancy! For, as Fox points out:

The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud–it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.

So have fun when reading with your child!

And what joy to be had! Reading for pleasure becomes (or continues) because it is something done together that provides for a safe and relaxed learning atmosphere, a non-threatening grand time that occurs for both readers when children share their thoughts, ask questions about the events or pictures, or make connections between what is happening in the book in their little hands and another book, or something they know of from their own lives. The book provides for easy stopping points as well, given the sidebars and sections laid out as they are. While the facing pages may be enough for one sitting, Beautiful Dreamer makes it easy for readers to choose whether to continue or to choose one item to explore.

“The Fantastic Notebooks” discusses and presents images of some of Leonardo’s observational records whilst in Milan: astronomy, measurement, achitecture, optics, physics, botany, mechanics, philology, mathematics, flight, power, the stage, military arts and science, anatomy and water, just to name a very few of the different topics da Vinci studied and wrote on in his lifetime. True to the book’s introduction, children could, especially when engaged in conversation about their own habits, see Leonardo as not unlike themselves:

…trying to follow an explanation of how something complicated, like a bird’s wing or a poem or the human eye, actually worked. Or perhaps you once tried to draw a leaf or a horse’s head or a hand, making every detail exact.

I was especially struck by the connection between these two sections because my own ten-year-old also has passions that he records in notebooks, and we talk about them periodically–or he even jumps up to record something very important in one of his notebooks–whilst reading together. Allowing children measure of freedom for movement, ideas and direction enables their learning, even though it may strike some parents as very informal and not at all educational, while in fact the absorption taking place is fairly astounding.

One of my favorite sections was that entitled “Strange Animals, Mythical Beasts.” Reminiscent to me of Sir John Mandeville and the famous stories he brought back from his world travel, as told in his Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357), it contains a selection of Leonardo’s sensational stories of exotic animals, some of which today are discernable to even very young children. One such might be the unicorn, delightful drawings of which grace almost an entire page and which some children, through discovering connections, may “recognize” as a rhinoceros. Conversations may tip towards medieval beliefs, African animals, even fabulous stories of children’s own making. Exchanges are limited only by the child’s own participation and grownup encouragement to seek links in our wide world, observations and dicussions in which Leonardo himself would surely have delighted.