...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review: Walk With Peril, by D.V.S. Jackson

Book Summary (from dust jacket):

Two young men walked with peril during those months of 1415. One was Robert Fairfield, in danger because of his religion, and because of the enmity of the Duke of York. The other was King Henry V, who knew he was always surrounded by deceit and treachery and who let no man stand behind him.

Robert Fairfield came from Wales to London to become King Henry’s loyal follower in the hope of winning the accolade of knighthood. Since Robert was poor he rode alone, with his long sword, a belt of golden bells, and a shield bearing the device of a sleeping lion on a green field and the legend “Wake Me No Man.” The wealthy merchant, Lewis Chappelle, hurrying citywards with his lovely daughter Constance, grudgingly asks Robert to join his party for the sake of his sword, and then to stay in the vast mansion by the Thames. Here Robert sense strange and secret currents, and is on his guard as a stranger and as a member of the Lollards, the sect that even so early believed in religious freedom and whose members were now banned, persecuted and killed. And in a tavern brawl he met again the Duke of York, cousin to the king, whose enmity Robert had gained in Wales. York’s hatred is to follow Robert through the roads and battlefields of France to Robert’s mortal peril.

This is an exciting and colorful novel about two fascinating men. Robert is brave, resourceful, loyal, and his love story is as touching as it is honorable. But even more fascinating is the picture of Henry V, brave, determined, hard and cruel on behalf of England, kind and winning to his friends, who moves alone among his courtiers and his men, with his hidden dread of the assassin’s knife or poisoned cup, yet always pressing forward to make England strong at home and abroad.

It isn’t often that I write book reviews, here or on any of my other blogs. In fact, I’ve never written a book review before, aside from the Amazon.com-type. But for anyone interested in King Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, I found a book I’d like to share with you.

Actually, “re-found” would be more accurate. I first read this novel probably in junior high, and most likely because my sister was reading it. She’d checked it out from our local library. Judging from how much I had forgotten, much of it must have been over my head at the time. But I was struck enough with the characters, that I remember going back to the library, checking it out for myself, and reading it at least a couple more times between junior high and when I graduated from high school.

Oddly enough, I never paid any attention to the title or author. I just remembered that it had a light blue/gray binding (without a dust jacket) and I always knew which shelf to look on at the library to find it. Sadly, my carelessness meant that when I reflected on the book many years later, long after it no longer sat on that library shelf, I had no way of tracking it down to ever read it again.

Then, this past March while visiting my sister in Salt Lake City, the subject of this long lost, but never quite forgotten, book surprisingly sprang up in a conversation between us. My sister remembered it, too, and while she had also forgotten the title, she at least remembered that the author’s name started with a J, “…something like Jackson or Johnson”, she said.

Oh, for the wonderful and blessed miracle of modern technology! I immediately jumped on her computer and Googled, “novels about Henry V by Jackson”, or something like that. And what should come up almost immediately but the title: Walk With Peril. “That’s it!” my sister exclaimed. We read a brief blurb together to confirm it was the same book, whipped over to Amazon.com, and I promptly ordered two used copies, one for me and one for her. Because, of course, the book had since gone long out of print.

I just finished reading this splendid book again. I was afraid I might be disappointed, that the book might be somehow “less” than I remembered from my youth. Instead, it was much, much more.

The subtitle of Walk With Peril is An Exciting Novel of Henry V and Agincourt. Fortunately, that subtitle only appears on the dust jacket, so I’d never seen it on the bookbinding or on the inside pages of the book. Otherwise, I might have dismissed it as “a book about battles”, instead of “a book about characters” and never picked it up to read it. I’ve never been much interested in reading books about battles. But catch me up in a character, and I’ll go all the way with him.

And that’s what Jackson does in Walk With Peril. She spends the first ten chapters developing the hero (Robert Fairfield), the woman he loves (Constance Chappelle), her merchant father, a surly servant who ultimately becomes Robert’s most faithful companion, and even in some nearly heartbreaking scenes, a great mastiff dog. (Don’t worry, she stays strictly in Robert’s POV to do so.) By the time the hero Robert joins the troops of King Henry V and follows him on the campaign that will end in the famous battle of Agincourt, one is no longer worried about it being a “battle book”. One merely is as ready to follow Robert wherever he goes, as Robert is ready to follow the king.

Walk With Peril was published in 1959. If you’re looking for a “hot romance”, this book isn’t it. The romance is tender and touching and a little sad. It is also honorable, for above all things, Robert Fairfield is an honorable man, but the author does leave us with hope for him and Constance at the end.

Neither is this book filled with page after page of detailed battle scenes. Yes, the battle comes…more than one, in fact…but once Robert leaves Constance to follow the king, the focus shifts to introducing the characters of Henry V and his plotting cousin, the Duke of York. And what characters they are! Each one shines like a jewel…each a flawed jewel, perhaps, but each all the more human and, therefore, intriguing and heroic for it.

This book read almost new to me. I was shocked by how little I actually remembered. But two very, very brief scenes had continued to hover in my memory all these years, and influenced my writing in ways known only to myself and to Heaven. (No, I promise I didn’t plagiarize!) The scenes—actually, they were more like mere moments in the book—had somehow melded in my mind as one, but on my recent re-reading, I discovered they were, indeed, two separate moments within two separate scenes. I’ll not tell you what they were, for what touched me may well not touch you, and each reader should have the joy of discovering favorite, influential scenes and moments of his or her own.

Now see? This is why you will not often find me writing a book review. Because I ramble and blather and once I start talking about a book I love, I find it very difficult to stop.

Simply put: In my opinion (for all book reviews are basically one person’s opinion), Walk With Peril is a long lost jewel of an historical novel. I would love to see it reprinted some day. But for now, you can find used copies for as little as $0.01 on Amazon. (Used copies are also available at Alibris and Barnes and Noble.)

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