Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Saracen Lamp (Book Review)

Title: The Saracen Lamp
Author: Ruth M. Arthur       Illustrator: Margery Gill
Publication Information: Atheneum, 1970 Hardcover
Genre: YA, Multigenerational

Plot: The book begins in 1300 when a French girl, Melisande, prepares  for her marriage to an English knight her father met on (the Ninth) Crusade.  Her trusted friend, Joseph, a Saracen servant, makes a beautiful lamp, gold with stained glass, to take with her.  Part I of the book is about Melisande’s life in England as she adjusts to married life and a new country, tries to keep peace with her disapproving mother-in-law, Lady Constance, has a family, and copes with tragedy.  Toward the end of her life, Melisande becomes aware of the presence of a young girl, in a chair with wheels.  She guesses/hopes the child is from the future and will one day live in Melisande’s beloved Littleperry Manor.
16th century Alys takes over the narrative in In Part II.  Humbly born, she becomes a servant at Littleperry, where the Saracen Lamp is still considered a treasure of the house.  Alys bears a strong resemblance to the Squire’s daughter, and when she learns she is his illegitimate daughter she becomes resentful and envious of her half-sister Cicely, for whom a great match is planned.  Alys steals the Lamp and runs away from Littleperry to London with disastrous results.

Part III is set in the 20th century where Perdita is staying at Littleperry with her grandmother, as her parents are missionary doctors in Africa.  While recovering from hip infection, she finds an old sampler:  “Till the water doth flowe from the stone lizard’s mouth, And the Saracen Lampe hangs again in the wall, Alys must wander.”   Perdita is determined to learn the secret of the Saracen Lamp but she is distracted by an imaginary friend who becomes disturbingly real… 

What I liked: Ruth Arthur is one of my favorite authors. This book is what she does best – a story told by several narrators in which she delicately paints a historical background for each vivid character, with a hint of the paranormal.  She also captures a period of history that is otherwise neglected. I love the description of the beautiful lamp, made for Melisande by a proud man her father captured while on Crusade with King Louis of France, and how it influences each young woman's life.   Arthur is particularly skillful at depicting relationships between children and older relatives or friends.  Even her bad characters are not usually entirely bad; for example, Alys, although bitter about her birth, is genuinely concerned for her grandmother’s well-being.   I think Arthur’s books would be popular with contemporary teenagers because of their paranormal element; perhaps someone like Lizzie Skurnick will rescue them from undeserved obscurity.  
Margery Gill was a gifted illustrator of children’s books, known not just for her drawings in Arthur’s books but for a wide body of work which included A Little Princess and Susan Cooper. 

What I disliked: Arthur’s bad characters make for some scary books but none more so than A Candle in Her Room!  The Alys ghost in this book somewhat resembles the evil Dido.

As a child, I didn't think much about Joseph, the Saracen slave who made the lamp for Melisande, but now I realize he was taken captive by sanctimonious French invaders and died far from home, after Melisande departed for England.  

Source:  I bought my copy from Gill Bilski some years ago but I initially read Arthur’s books from the Newton Boys and Girls Library.  I remember being so pleased when one of the librarians told me she had saved the newest Arthur for me when it arrived (it was The Autumn People, another favorite).  It is authors like Arthur who would have made me love history if I hadn't already had parents who shared their love of completely different time periods with me!

(Image above copyright to Atheneum, 1970)

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