CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 16. . . .December 17, 2010.
The Ravens of Farne: A Tale of Saint Cuthbert.
Donna Farley. Illustrated by Heather Hayward.
Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2009.
32 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Preschool-grade 5 / Ages 4-10.
Review by Ruth Latta.
If God Himself has said you may
I will give you leave to eat.
But if not...
stop taking what is not yours and be off.
In her picture book, The Ravens of Farne, Donna Farley retells one of the stories about St. Cuthbert that the Venerable Bede wrote in the early 700s A.D.(or C.E.) (Bede was a Northumbrian monk who wrote the earliest history of the Christian church in England, and he is regarded as the father of English history.)
Farley introduces Cuthbert as a "man of God." As the story begins, he is newly arrived on the island of Farne off the northeast coast of England, where he lived as a hermit for a period of time in the 600s A.D. Inside the stone wall that he built, writes Farley, "heaven was all the man of God could see - stars at night and sun by day and the birds that flew overhead." The author's poetic language is one of the book's best features.
Cuthbert encounters many types of waterfowl. As well, a number of non-swimming birds, led by the "bold and greedy ravens," come to eat the grain that he has planted. The ravens also steal straw which he needs to thatch the roof of his stone hut. He banishes the ravens in the name of Jesus Christ, whereupon they "bow their heads in guilt and shame" and take flight. When one raven returns, and bows, Cuthbert forgives him and his friends and invites them back. The ravens return, bearing a useful gift, and from then on they "made their nests from island grass and ate food they found for themselves."
The story is intended to teach about repentance, forgiveness, and restitution. But this adult reader, coming from a Christian background, is confused. Surely the ravens were doing what comes naturally in helping themselves to grain and straw. Perhaps Cuthbert's ability to convince them to do otherwise is what made him a saint. But parents and teachers who are trying to teach children that animals have their own norms of behaviour won't find this book helpful.
I found Farley's other book, Bearing the Saint (San Francisco, Consiliar, 2010) to be a well-researched and fast-paced historical novel. Through its pages, teens and older readers of all backgrounds can time-travel back to Northeastern England in 875 A.D. and experience a unique culture and world view. The Ravens of Farne, however, would be more easily comprehended by children being educated in a branch of Christianity which emphasizes saints.
Illustrations are obviously important in a book for children. One thinks of Beatrix Potter's animals and Garth Williams' illustrations of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels. Heather Hayward's pictures do not seem to me as refined and professional as those that I've seen in books picked at random from the collections of my four-year-old grand-nephew and two-year-old grand-niece.
St. Cuthbert's icon shows him with otters. Donna Farley explains in her Afterword that he loved animals. As a bishop, he made a law that no one could steal the down from the eider ducks' nests. A book about this aspect of his life would appeal to children from various backgrounds who are learning to be kind to animals and to respect the environment.
Recommended with reservations.
Ruth Latta's most recent book is Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, email@example.com), a collection of her short stories.
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