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††††††††††† Every year I
select one book that I designate as the best book that I read that year. This
year that book will probably be Song of Eloise by Leigh Sauerwein.
This year's book was selected for its sheer beauty of description. It is a rich
medieval tapestry worth revisiting again and again.
of Eloise is set in medieval
France. The primary story of the novel centers on
Eloise, the youngest daughter Baudoin. Baudoin is a strong medieval war lord. When his sons are
killed in a battle on a crusade, he is devastated. Baudoin's
old friend and ally, Robert of Rochefort is the only
one who can lift his spirits. Thus it is not unusual when Robert requests
Eloise in marriage, Baudoin accepts. At fifteen,
Eloise is not too young for marriage, but she balks at the thought of marrying
Robert whom she considers old at "30 winters". None-the-less the
marriage takes place and Eloise is literally carted off to Robert's mountaintop
castle. There she encounters Lady Merle, his blind mother whose need to touch
is frightening to her. Over the course of a year Eloise encounters all that
life can throw at a woman - love, childbirth, and widowhood - not necessarily
in that order. Surrounding Eloise, however, is the rich tapestry of medieval
life. Robert, the illegitimate son of a war lord, struggles to make his young
wife happy and to just once smile at him. Merle, risen
from foundling to war lord's mistress to lady of the castle, struggles with the
fairy voices that haunt her head. Thomas, a son of a fisherman and castle
firemaker, grows up, learns to write, and becomes a "trobar"
or troubadour.† Eloise's Uncle John, a
battle weary crusader turned artist seeks penance painting in a crypt after
killing a starving robber. In addition, there are the brief images of named and
unnamed monks, lords, ladies, servants, peasants, and animals going about their
daily lives. Throughout the novel is the ongoing verses of a calendar song
"In January, the night is sixteen hours long, the day eight. In February,
the night is fourteen days long, the day ten." etc. forever reminding the
reader that life, like the medieval wheel of fate, is a never ending cycle
What makes this novel so
extraordinary is its ordinariness. The feelings and actions are eternal. Yet
each character breaks modern stereotypes. Eloise is the heroine of the story,
yet modern fiction would class her as spoilt and self-centered. Robert, her
husband, is not a stereotypical lecher desiring to bed a young girl. He truly
loves Eloise, waited for her to come of marriageable age, and trembled when he
took her hand in marriage. Lady Merle haunts the edge of the story,
understandably using her hands to "see" her world. While Eloise views
her as a spiteful meddlesome mother-in-law, time and time again she does not
hurt Eloise, but helps her. Throughout the novel all are seldom what they seem,
but none are startlingly shocking. People are portrayed as both
helpful and hurtful, pitiless in their cruelty and pitiable in their woundedness. Young readers may sympathize too much with Eloise
as a victim, but within her historical context, the pattern of life is status
quo.† It might be hard for some reader to
move beyond 21st century sensitivities to view Eloise's life within its 12th
is a native of the United States
and has lived for the last 20 years in France She is a
professional writer and translator and has published extensively for children.
Her first book in English, The Way Home
(1994), was published in the United States
to considerable acclaim."
of Eloise by Leigh Sauerwein is beautifully written. It is a
picture book of words. It is suggested for grade 8 and up. Some parents may find the description of childbirth
and frank allusions to sex troublesome. I HIGHLY recommend this book for
young adults AND adults.
© 2004 Su Terry
Su Terry: Education:
B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from
Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral
Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in
Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in
Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a
Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in
Library Science at Dowling College,
Long Island, NY.
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