Monday, May 20, 2024

The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw

Title: The Striped Ships
Author: Eloise McGraw
Publication: Macmillan, Margaret K. McElderry, hardcover, 1991
Genre: Juvenile Historical Fiction
Setting: 11th century Britain
Description: On what seems like an ordinary autumn morning in 1066, eleven-year-old Juliana, daughter of a Saxon thane, follows her usual routine of joining her future mother-in-law, Lady Editha, where she is instructed in embroidery and other household arts. When she slips away to the waterfront, she sees an onslaught of ships striped in red, gold, black and green, and realizes it is invading Normans. Running so quickly to warn the villagers that she leaves her shoes behind, Juliana realizes there are no soldiers nearby to defend the town because an invasion was not feared until spring. She is captured and forced to become a servant but regains some hope for the future when she learns her brother Wilfric survived the attack. With the help of an old fisherman, they escape to Canterbury, eluding Normans and rebels in their travels, where Wilfric can enter a monastery and Juliana can scrabble a living as a drudge, scrubbing the church and helping in the abbey kitchen. But when the monks begin an ambitious tapestry to chronicle the events leading to the invasion and conquest Juliana’s embroidery skills become invaluable. Unwilling to accept charity from her mother’s Norman kin, she is able to become self-reliant and build a new life for herself.

My Impression: This is a moving and realistic story about a girl who loses everything – family, home, status – and faces crises and obstacles with despair but determination. Although she was bored by the skills she was being taught by her future mother-in-law, those become her salvation (the future groom, just 12, is killed by the Normans along with his father and Juliana’s). In fact, had she stayed with Lady Editha or made it home when she saw the Norman ships, she would likely have avoided much of the hardships she endured while trying to stay alive and unharmed but would not have gained the maturity and independence she realizes she craves. Whether a girl this age would have been allowed to make such decisions seems unlikely but the author provides a convincing narrative. McGraw also conveys the bitterness and fear of a conquered people; Juliana has difficulty overcoming her hatred of the Normans and her apprehension about the future:
Only at the embroidery frame did the day smooth into a pattern of continuity and purpose, of skill and work. The inked lines that became lively faces under her needle, the gesturing hands, the horses with their tensely lifted forelegs, the tunics and cloaks and castles that grew rich with detail, became a private, absorbing world from which she emerged at day’s end to face the threatening real one.
I always found the Margaret K. McElderry books in my library (authors such as Ruth M. Arthur, Susan Cooper, and L.M. Boston) but this came out after I had moved to New York and was more occupied reading advance reading copies from the publishers by whom I was employed. Coincidentally, however, it was published the same year as the 1991 McDonald's Open, which took place at Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy in Paris. My sister and future brother-in-law were working for the NBA and she invited me to go with her and share her hotel room. I spent the days sightseeing and the evenings watching Magic Johnson and the Lakers, sometimes joining my sister and her colleagues for dinner after the game. The NBA organized several tours for the family members of the players and staff so I benefitted from free visits to the Louvre, Versailles, and the catacombs with proper guides, which were great.
Rouen Cathedral,  Monet, 1894
After a few days in Paris, I set off on my own and took the train to Normandy, where I really got to use my French. I visited Rouen to see the cathedral painted 30 times by Monet in the late 19th century and the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. The next day I went to Caen to see the Bayeux Tapestry, which has its own museum and is amazing to see, especially for someone who used to embroider (not at Juliana’s level). It is 230 feel long and 20 inches tall. Presumably because I had read it somewhere, I subscribed to the belief that Matilda, wife to William the Conqueror, and her ladies created the Tapestry. Recent scholarship influenced McGraw, who posits here that it was commissioned by William's half-brother, Bishop Odo, and created by Saxon women in Canterbury.

There is not a lot of fiction set during this time frame. Gladys Malvern wrote a book called Heart’s Conquest about a Saxon noblewoman and a Norman knight that I have not reread for many years but suspect it was much less realistic than this appealing story. I also read Wife to the Bastard by Hilda Lewis and The Conqueror by Georgette Heyer. As this story ends, Juliana notices that the children she is minding are speaking a mixture of Norman and Saxon, a hint to the reader of how the English language is evolving after the Conquest.
Source: Library. This is my twelfth book for Marg's 2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. In some circles, McGraw is best known for her continuation of the Oz books. I remember checking out Greensleeves from my grade school library but when I realized it wasn’t about Henry VIII, I returned it.  Now that I know she is a Newbery Honor recipient, maybe I should give it another try, especially if Nancy Pearl likes it!


Katrina said...

This is yet another author that I hadn't heard of, one to look out for.
I have walked past the Bayeux Tapestry museum but didn't go in as J and the boys weren't keen on going to see it!

CLM said...

You would have enjoyed it! That excursion was a real pilgrimage for me and I enjoyed it, although I don't really care for traveling alone. And to see the WWII sites, one really needs a car. My sister went with her family recently but I think she left the teenage boys at home - probably a good move!

Marg said...

Seeing the tapestry was one of the highlights for me. I walked through it once, and then snuck back to the beginning and started again!

There was a book years ago called Needle in the Blood which talked about Bishop Odo being responsible for the tapestry

Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge