by Theresa Tomlinson
Edition reviewed: Corgi, 2006, ISBN 0-552-55271-2
First, two disclaimers:
1) This is billed as a teenage/young adult novel. I haven't read one of these before (no, not even Harry Potter) and I don't know if they follow conventions of their own, so I've simply reviewed this as if it were general fiction.
2) I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind.
Wolf Girl is set in Northumbria in 663* AD. The central character and her family are fictional. Real historical figures also feature, including Abbess Hild, the poet Caedmon, several members of Northumbria's royal family, and some who are little more than names in the surviving records but are fully-developed characters in the novel (e.g. the nuns Fridgyth and Begu).
The central character is Wulfrun, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Cwen, a weaver who works for Whitby Abbey. Wulfrun accidentally reveals that Cwen possesses a valuable gold and garnet necklace, as a result of which Cwen is accused of theft and possibly treason and imprisoned awaiting trial. Wulfrun sets out to clear her mother's name, by finding out the history of the necklace and seeking proof that her mother owned it by right and had not stolen it. Wulfrun finds help from unexpected friends, but unknown enemies are working to prevent her finding out the truth. Soon Wulfrun and her friends find themselves drawn into dangerous political events that threaten to pitch the whole kingdom of Northumbria into civil war.
I liked a great many things about this novel. The setting is very well researched and Hild's monastery at Whitby is brought to life as a self-sufficient community in a working economy. The political undercurrents are credible for the period and the geography is accurate. The old pagan gods are still very much part of the culture, which is very likely as Northumbria's then king had been officially converted to Christianity less than 40 years before. In her historical note, the author says, "there is still much that is unknown about the period and acknowledged historians interpret the evidence in different ways. Because of that I decided to create a picture [...] that is really Anglo-Saxon Whitby as I would like it to have been, rather than an attempt at accuracy." Given the patchy nature of the sources, I would say the novel achieves this admirably.
The characters are for the most part likeable and well-rounded, and include people from all walks of life. Wulfrun in particular is bright, resourceful and brave, a strong and capable heroine. Abbess Hild is as forceful as I have always imagined her from Bede's account of her life. There are plenty of other strong-minded and independent female characters, yet the roles they play are credible in the context of the time. No misplaced feminism or Xena-type warrior princesses here, I am glad to say. If I have a complaint, it's that all the really strong and well-developed characters are women. The men, by comparison, fade into the background and hardly get a look-in.
The story ticks along without ever dragging, and as everything Wulfrun learns about the necklace raises as many questions as it answers, the plot naturally expands beyond Wulfrun's family. Since Wulfrun, daughter of a poor weaver, knows nothing about Northumbria's political history, the reader learns about it along with her. This results in quite a lot of exposition as various people explain things to Wulfrun. One particularly interesting feature is an exploration of what it might be like for a child to be dedicated as a nun as a baby and brought up in a monastery.
There is a helpful plan of Whitby Abbey and a map of Northumbria, and a useful historical note listing the real and the invented characters. Modern place names are mostly used, except for kingdoms (e.g. Deira, Bernicia, Rheged). The Old English personal names have been simplified, e.g. Cadmon rather than Caedmon, Elfled rather than Aelfflaed, or modified to make them more easily distinguishable, e.g. Ianfleda rather than Eanflaed. However, they still retain the feel of the period; they still look like Old English names rather than modern ones. (By the way, am I the only person who has real trouble when an author converts a name like Aethelstan to 'Stan' or Aethelred to 'Red'? Votes, please).
Was there anything I disliked? Well, I think Iurminburgh probably doesn't deserve her portrayal, not least because if she had behaved as described here it is perhaps unlikely that she would have played her later, documented, role in Northumbrian history. But little is known of the historical Iurminburgh, so who's to say? I also thought that the political sub-plot seemed rather too elaborate to have been initiated by a chance find, and yet it turns on the discovery of the necklace. I also have my doubts as to whether any commander of the time would have planned major military activity for November. But really, these are very minor, and could be explained as opportunism on the part of the plotters and inexperience on the part of the commander.
A rattling good yarn with a capable, determined heroine, in a splendidly authentic setting.
*The action takes place in spring, summer and autumn of one year, but I'm
not quite sure which year it is. The date is variously given as the year before
the Synod of Whitby, which would be 663, ten years after the Battle of Winwaed,
which would be 665, and 25 years after King Edwin's death, which would be
658. 663 fits most closely with the age of Ecgfrid as given in the novel.
(Note that this chronological discrepancy, if such it is, doesn't interfere
at all with the story and only a pedant who's spent far too long poring over
the history of early Northumbria would even notice).