The Wicked and the Just – J. Anderson Coats

YA historical novel- reads like a combination of Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy and Donna Jo Napoli’s Hush: An Irish Princess’ Tale. I’d recommend it to kids ages 12-15, both if they’re interested in medieval times and if they’re interested in more modern issues of colonialism.

The language is beautiful, a combination of modern imagery and archaic words and ways of marking time and space. Half is told from the point of view of a self-centered, motherless English girl, Cecily, who moves to Wales after her childhood home is lost in a lawsuit. Her father is attracted by the opportunities privileges given to burgesses (free townspeople) in Wales, but these same privileges grate on the Welsh, who plan rebellion as they see English settlers monopolizing trade and power. Some of how this is shown is very well-done, such as the way the English force everyone to trade in their market and fine anyone who trades outside, but at other times the division is too Manichean- no mention is made, outside of the historical note, of Welsh landowners, for example, only English ones, and the English of the town sometimes come off as cartoonish in their villainy. On the other hand, the story draws some very interesting parallels with modern colonialism and also shows the feudal system beyond the simplified serf-lord aspect.

The other half is told from the point of view of the fierce, vengeful Gwenhwyfar, who works as a servant in Cecily’s household. Her father died fighting the English and so her family lost their land. Gwenhwyfar resents Cecily, worries about her younger brother and ill mother, longs for revenge, and rejects her former fiance’s ideas of trying to gain access to the privileges. Said fiance is a very interesting character, though the way even the Welsh rebels seem to agree with his idea that eventually the English will return and the Welsh should try to get the same privileges bothered me. What kind of rebels assume while they’re winning that they have no chance in the long term?

I at first disliked how the voices were differentiated by Gwenhwyfar dropping the word “I” from her sentences, but it paid off when the rebellion comes and suddenly Gwenhwyfar uses the word “I” again, feels like a full person again.

The girls’ grief for their long-dead parents and later for the loss of their remaining parents- Cecily’s father is lynched by rebels for his role in enforcing the millers’ monopoly and Gwenhwyfar’s mother dies of her illness- is specific and devastating, and from the rebellion onward, the book is very intense. The parallels and contrasts between the girls and between the English and the Welsh are too neat and some characters are unrealistically clairvoyant about how the situation between the Welsh and English will resolve in the long-term. But both the medieval social/feudal situation and the lives of women are explored with unusual subtlety, and the setting and conflict are an unusual and interesting choice.

Edit: I forgot to add that if you’re interested in the spinning/sewing/women’s work/clothing being more valuable in those days, there is a lot here about sewing as work, as a means of self-expression, and as a social activity, and about the value of cloth and clothing.

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