CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 5 . . . . October 29, 2004
"Could you teach me as well, Father?" she asked. "If they allow me to come here often, could you teach me?"
"I suppose..." Father Martin began. "But what use would you have of it? You are but a maid..."
Angeline bristled, but held back the angry retort that threatened to spill out. Instead, she said, "Zahra, the concubine who..." The words stuck in her throat. She forced herself to go on. "The concubine who owns me, " she said, "can read and write. She copies the books the Emir brings home from the palace library. Wonderful books they are! Bound in the finest leather and with illuminations of real gold! Her copies are as fine as the originals. And she has taught me a few words in Arabic that I write as well..." She stopped, aware that Father Martin's face had frozen.
"A concubine?" he demanded. "Learned?"
"She is," Angeline replied. To her surprise, she found herself defending Zahra hotly. "She is a very learned woman."
Angeline, a poor French peasant girl, is persuaded by the visionary shepherd, Stephen, to join the Children's Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem from the "infidels." She and Stephen and Father Martin are betrayed and sold as slaves to the Emir Abd'al Haseeb, a powerful and wealthy Egyptian. They learn to cope in this strange new society which contradicts much of what they have been taught about eastern ways. Angeline learns to copy manuscripts, and, as the Emir's concubine, becomes pregnant with his child, but she receives her freedom when the Emir realizes that she wishes to marry Stephen, who has conquered depression and become a hero in the Emir's eyes after he rescues the Emir's son twice. Father Martin allows the Emir's doctors to treat his illness and becomes better both physically and mentally as he learns to accept the ways of Islam and the Coptic Christians.
This novel is based on the horrific experience of the 20,000 children who followed Stephen of Cloyes to Marseilles in 1212. Thirteenth century Egypt comes alive in the hands of this marvellous storyteller. You can taste the sand and feel the peace of the Emir's house. The markets, the journey on the Nile, and the streets of Cairo are all pulsing with action, colour, strange smells and wonderful food.
Angeline is a strong young girl, determined to survive, and equally determined that no one will own her. Gradually she accepts the love and friendship of Zahra, the Emir's favourite concubine, who owns her yet teaches her to copy manuscripts and nurses her through a broken leg accident. Her faith is shaken by the Coptic Christians who seem to be such good people. When Zahra earns her freedom, Angeline reluctantly takes her place at the same time as she realizes that she is in love with Stephen. Her pregnancy only stiffens her resolve. Stephen's faith leads him into depression as he thinks he has not only failed completely in his Crusade but also is responsible for the deaths of so many children. However, through the rewards and support of the thankful Emir, and a second vision, Stephen regains his love of life and begins to plan for the future. Father Martin represents the Christian Church and its reluctance to accept that there could be any good come out of the east. His physical sickness mirrors his sickness of the soul, and it is only when he accepts the help of the Emir's physicians that he becomes better physically while at the same time he begins to accept that Islam may have something to teach him. The Egyptian characters (the Emir, Zahra, the family steward Zeid, and the child Aza) are calm, compassionate people who treat everyone with great respect. The harem girls are more petulant and Samah, the servant in charge is more imperative. Ibrahim, the Coptic Christian, is curious and friendly, giving both Angeline and Stephen the help they need to adapt and survive.
When Angeline is first captured and sold as a slave, the narrative runs through her mind as she cannot speak in Arabic. Her terror and isolation keep her silent. However, as she learns Arabic and when she meets with Stephen and Father Martin, there is more dialogue. The descriptions of the life in Cairo all come through the eyes of Angeline the newcomer, and so they both enlighten and inform. This is historical fiction at its best, all show and no tell.
Angeline is a well-designed book, with a stunning desert scene on the front cover along with the Arabic word for "thank you", the first phrase Angeline learns to write in Arabic. The elegant script chosen for the chapter titles and the headings reflects the eastern style.
Angeline is a compelling story of a plucky heroine that will appeal to both boys and girls in grades 6 to 10. However, it will also prove to be a forum for discussions around faith. It is not only through their Christian faith that Stephen, Angeline and Father Martin survive. They also receive grace when they accept the ways of Islam and Egypt as they realize that there is more than one way to God. The thirteenth century city of Cairo welcomes people of all faith who respect each other — a model we still cannot manage to build in the world a thousand years later.
Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg, MB.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.