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The title and theme immediately put me in mind of the Angelique books which my friends and I read avidly (and surreptitiously) in high school. Though not of the same racy nature, this works the same territory of historical fiction with an exotic setting, romantic tone, and compelling characters. You know its a good story when you forsake the days tasks and curl up on the sofa to read till you are finished. Both my teen reader and I fell under its spell.
One is immediately drawn into the book and sympathetic to Angeline as she stands on the block in an Egyptian slave market, after participating in the tragic madness of the Childrens Crusade of 1212 A.D. The Crusade, in which thousands of children died or were sold into slavery, is explained in the Prologue and portrayed through horrific flashbacks of Angelines experiences. The memory of those children-of all the lost children-was a searing ache within her that she would carry for the rest of her life.
The Crusade is but one of several strong topics dealt with in the book, along with female sexual slavery (concubinage, harems), the hostile relationship between Christianity and Islam, the question of God and faith, and the two-edged power of religion which can lead astray but also fortify. The depiction of cultural and religious intolerances based on ignorance-i.e. the core beliefs of the Christian crusades against the Muslim infidel-are timely, given the present day battles between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims. Reading Bradford, one might wonder have we yet left the Middle Ages.
I must confess to an uneasiness at the almost cosy depiction of female slavery and would question the description of the Emirs sexual use of Angeline as kind and respectful. Given that she had no choice in the matter and was not willing, this would normally be called rape. Yet one is forced to ruminate upon the question of how real people survive in these situations, the compromises they make, and the possibility, however slight, of their achieving happiness within such restricted parameters. The author tells us in her historical note that slaves were treated well in the Muslim society of Egypt; most of the children sold there eventually were able to make good lives for themselves.
At any rate, Bradford does not shy away from these difficult topics and her young readers will appreciate her straightforward manner. More importantly, she does not allow the weight of message or moralising to interfer with her story. This is a powerful coming-of-age tale of a courageous young woman who faces terrible hardship but remains true to herself and her will to survive-I must take care of myself-ultimately grasping happiness against the odds.
A final word on the writing: it flows as smoothly and sweetly as honey over dates. The occasional use of archaic syntax and vocabulary adds an antique flavour to the prose, while the evocation of colour, scent, desert image and suq carry you off to Cairo.
O.R. Melling (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
KARLEEN BRADFORD is the acclaimed author of 21 children’s and young adult books, including five books about the Crusades. Angeline was nominated for the Manitoba Young Reader’s Choice Award; Lionheart’s Scribe was nominated for a Silver Birch Award, among others; and There Will Be Wolves was the winner of the CLA Young Adult Book Award. Karleen Bradford lives in Owen Sound, Ontario.