||A Review of: Angeline
by O.R. Melling
The title and theme immediately put me in mind of the Angelique
books which my friends and I read avidly (and surreptitiously) in
high school. Though not of the same racy nature, this works the
same territory of historical fiction with an exotic setting, romantic
tone, and compelling characters. You know it's a good story when
you forsake the day's tasks and curl up on the sofa to read till
you are finished. Both my teen reader and I fell under its spell.
One is immediately drawn into the book and sympathetic to Angeline
as she stands on the block in an Egyptian slave market, after
participating in the tragic madness of the Children's Crusade of
1212 A.D. The Crusade, in which thousands of children died or were
sold into slavery, is explained in the Prologue and portrayed through
horrific flashbacks of Angeline's experiences. The memory of those
children-of all the lost children-was a searing ache within her
that she would carry for the rest of her life.
The Crusade is but one of several strong topics dealt with in the
book, along with female sexual slavery (concubinage, harems), the
hostile relationship between Christianity and Islam, the question
of God and faith, and the two-edged power of religion which can
lead astray but also fortify. The depiction of cultural and religious
intolerances based on ignorance-i.e. the core beliefs of the Christian
crusades against the Muslim "infidel"-are timely, given
the present day battles between fundamentalist Christians and
fundamentalist Muslims. Reading Bradford, one might wonder have we
yet left the Middle Ages.
I must confess to an uneasiness at the almost cosy depiction of
female slavery and would question the description of the Emir's
sexual use of Angeline as "kind and respectful." Given
that she had no choice in the matter and was not willing, this would
normally be called rape. Yet one is forced to ruminate upon the
question of how real people survive in these situations, the
compromises they make, and the possibility, however slight, of their
achieving happiness within such restricted parameters. The author
tells us in her historical note that "slaves were treated well
in the Muslim society of Egypt; most of the children sold there
eventually were able to make good lives for themselves."
At any rate, Bradford does not shy away from these difficult topics
and her young readers will appreciate her straightforward manner.
More importantly, she does not allow the weight of message or
moralising to interfer with her story. This is a powerful coming-of-age
tale of a courageous young woman who faces terrible hardship but
remains true to herself and her will to survive-I must take care
of myself-ultimately grasping happiness against the odds.
A final word on the writing: it flows as smoothly and sweetly as
honey over dates. The occasional use of archaic syntax and vocabulary
adds an antique flavour to the prose, while the evocation of colour,
scent, desert image and suq carry you off to Cairo.