CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 20 . . . . June 10, 2005
The year is 1815, and Napoleon is about to be deposited into his final exile on St. Helena. The island is, geographically speaking, a peculiar place. It is a volcanic cone situated a long way from everywhere but close to the equator where only the cold Atlantic stream flowing past it moderates its temperatures, keeping it much the same winter and summer. It also has three distinct climates, which explains why Gracie, living in the port of Jamestown, cannot grow hardy everlasting flowers and certainly not roses or even primroses, while The Briars, a manor house only a mile or so from town, has a lovely garden with grapes, pomegranates, and, yes, roses. Still farther inland -- though on an island only 12 miles by 8 at its longest and widest -- the estate of Longwood, where Napoleon was eventually held prisoner, could also support almost tropical growth. All this I learned as a result of reading Gracie and the Emperor. The gardens were so prominent in the book that I had to do a bit of confirming research before I could believe in the setting, but Broome has it exactly right.
Gracie, aged eleven and half-Chinese, works after school at a boarding house in Jamestown, but she has been raised on the nursery rhyme about Napoleon Bonaparte --quoted at the beginning of the book -- which threatens naughty children with being eaten, or worse, by 'Boney' if they don't stop their mischief immediately. She, therefore, digs in her heels and refuses to make up a bed for this monster when he first arrives on the island. Ironically, being fired from her job at the boarding house leads her to another which puts her into even closer proximity to the Emperor. From her lowly position in the kitchen at The Briars, she cannot help observing Napoleon's humanity, his concern for those serving him (even her!), his love of flowers and growing things, and in general his many nonthreatening aspects. Her continuing contacts with the General are the background for her own story of her wish to escape from the island which she, too, finds a prison, her conflict with her father Isaac, and their eventual reconciliation.
There is something about this book which does not quite jell. Gracie's mother was Chinese and is dead. The fact of her death is important in that it changed the dynamics of the family and made her father much more difficult to live with, but the mixed-race aspect does nothing for the plot as a whole and seems an unnecessary sideline. The themes of escape, whether physically by getting away from the island or merely inwardly by seeking to establish a garden, are fine, the characters and background are interesting enough, but the whole does not grab the reader and pull him or her along to the conclusion. It is a piece of history that is difficult to make compelling perhaps because basically it is the end of an era, and Broome has not quite managed to enliven it sufficiently with his tale of lives touched by Napoleon.
Recommended with reservations.
Mary Thomas works in two elementary-school libraries in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.