This book was a surprisingly enjoyable reread and trip down Memory Lane! However, I have never found anyone who’s ever even heard of it, which is truly bizarre to me. I don’t think they even had it in my childhood library—I don’t even know where my copy came from. Someone must have given it to me as a gift WAY too young, because I have a very clear memory of trying to read it in Grade 2 at age eight and being in way over my head and then stowing it away in my desk. I didn’t pick it up again until sometime in high school, I think.
Quest For A Maid, Frances Mary Hendry, 1988.
I’m not a big fantasy person, but this book has exactly the right amount for me. Meg, the protagonist, is the nine-year-old youngest of seven sisters, all daughters of a reasonably wealthy Scottish shipwright in Inverkeithing in the 13th century. Her oldest sister, Inge, is a witch, and a witch of some power to boot. We start right in on the action when Meg hides in her sister’s storehouse and watches as an elegant court lady asks for a favour from Inge—asking her to kill the king, Alexander III, to clear the way for her own family to assume the throne. Inge does it by appearing in a spectre before the king as he rides during a dark night’s storm towards his queen—and then Scotland is, predictably, plunged into a horrorshow.
One of the things that’s so great about this book is that Hendry is a terrific writer, and the book moves right along at a terrific clip considering at 270 pages it’s a pretty hefty tome for a YA novel. And the second great thing is that it relies pretty heavily on plenty of Scots dialect words, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious and annoying like so many others do. I think it’s due to the fact that Hendry uses it extensively throughout the book, rather than just sprinkling in a few words here and there for “effect,” and the fact that it doesn’t distract from the story itself. It’s used along with sentence structure evocative of Scots that’s period-appropriate, so instead of just being a twee little affectation, it’s a major, and excellent, part of the book.
Anyway, while the king’s death kicks off the book, it then takes a back burner for the next several chapters. Instead we learn about Meg’s life in a shipyard with her blustering dad and older sisters and all the other members of the household that make up her world. When a whale beaches itself on the shore near their home, Meg goes along with her dad to see it as a treat—and while she’s there she meets a boy, Davey, a few years younger than she is with a severe harelip, or cleft palate. Because it’s so severe he can’t be understood by anyone, even his parents, but Meg can understand his speech with a little bit of close listening. She defends him from a crowd of boys taunting him, and later saves him from drowning when he’s swept into the water. The boy’s father, Sir Patrick Spens, is so grateful to her that he arranges to have the kids betrothed.
As was normal at that time, Meg goes to live with the Spens family to be “trained” properly as a housewife, and while she’s there she lucks her way into a manservant as well. The boy, Peem, is a few years older than Meg, and she rescues him by her wits from the local evil lord, and it’s this three—Meg, Peem, and Davie—who make up the major characters for the rest of the book. They spend all their time together, and one summer Meg’s father builds them a little boat to sail in—the Petrel—which also becomes important.
This book is the only book I’ve ever read that made the thirteenth century sound absolutely amazing. It’s so wonderfully evocative and everything is described so beautifully—“we sailed sweeter than ever before through a world jewelled and enamelled like a reliquary: gold sun, silver water set thick with emerald, sapphire, and beryl, and the wide lapis arch of the sky above.” Beautiful. And from later in the book—“Twelve salted beefs, hogsheads of wine, barrels of beer, hams, dried and salt fish, live lampreys in a barrel of water, sacks of onions, cabbages, mustard by the gallon, salt, pepper, spices—a pound of cloves!—ship’s bread, oatmeal, sugar, raisins, dates, figs, gingerbread for the Maid….parcels of clothes, cloth, fur; Scots pearls, cairngorm, amethyst, set in Scots gold and silver; carved horn, embroidery, French perfumes, scented Spanish leather, glass from Venice, toys from England.” Can’t you just smell it? Aren’t you just aching to touch all of it?
When Meg is fifteen, her sister Inge is finally accused of witchcraft and must stand trial by the bishops. She’s dying to go and support her, but everyone forbids her because everyone knows Meg can’t possibly hide what she knows—that Inge is a witch—because she’s too honest. But Meg wants to go anyway, and Peem and Davey spirit her away to the church where the trial is being held. Meg is spotted and forced to give her testimony, and her misspeaking causes Inge to be put to trial by water—where she’s tied to a rope and plunged in the river. Inge passes it by sinking, and lives, but both Meg’s father and Davey’s father are absolutely furious with her. Meg’s father suffers a heart attack after Inge is rescued, and Meg feels even worse after that for what she’s done.
That following year, the Council of Guardians of Scotland asks the king of Norway to send his daughter, Margaret, to be married to Prince Edward of England. Margaret is the granddaughter of the late Alexander III, and heir to the Scottish throne. Patrick Spens, being a major ship owner and trader, is charged with the voyage (much to his dismay, since it’ll be full of lords and ladies and generally a mess). Meg and Davey to go see it off, and just as they’re ready to go, Inge appears—with bad news, that one of the ladies has broken her leg and can’t go. Meg is plucked from the crowd and sent on the trip—the reasoning being that she’s Patrick Spens’ almost-daughter-in-law, speaks Norse (learned from her father), and is closer in age to the little princess than the older women. But when Peem sprains his ankle racing on board, she has to go without him and Davey.
Upon their arrival in Norway, they find that the princess Margaret is quite weak and not all that healthy, and is totally overcrowed by her “friend,” Audfinglas, the daughter of one of the bitchy, nasty court ladies. They are all packed on board and sent off by the king of Norway, and as soon as they get on the boat Audfinglas gets sick as anything and is bedridden, leaving Margaret to explore the boat like any nine-year-old. While they’re on their way back to Scotland, who turns up but Peem and Davey in the little Petrel, come to warn the others that they’ve heard Inge promise her mistress that Margaret will never be crowned queen, and she’ll make sure of it. Other than Master Spens, they tell no one, and slowly befriend Margaret while Audfinglas is bedridden. The princess tells Meg and Peem and Davie that she doesn’t want to be queen—she’s afraid that someone will kill her for the crown. Frankly, she probably isn’t wrong, and even if it weren’t for Inge someone would have it out for her. All Meg’s promises that her life will be lovely in England go to waste, and Margaret won’t stop telling her she doesn’t want to be queen.
Then a storm pops up—and it’s not a natural storm, it’s a storm Meg is convinced Inge conjured up to destroy them all. It’s the worst storm anyone as ever seen, and Meg desperately tries to keep the princess safe as people are being swept off into the sea left and right. Finally, a horrible wave comes that capsizes the ship entirely and killing almost everyone—the lords and ladies and Master Spens and Audfinglas and all the others. Peem and Davey and Meg and the princess manage to scramble into the Petrel to save themselves.
They wash ashore, just barely alive, in the Orkneys. The princess opts for a new name—Marie—and the rest of them throw themselves on the mercy of the farmer who lives there, saying they’re servants from the princess’s ship that sank. They stay there all winter, while Marie recovers from a bad fever, and set off for Inverkeithing again in the spring taking their time. They go very slowly, not sure where they’re even heading, but when they’re almost there they run into a beggar-woman they know slightly who recognizes them and tells Meg her father has died. Then she turns right around and turns them into the authorities—the local terrible lord again, and they have to run for their lives.
They think they’ve made it just when they stop to rest, and who pops up but Inge, her mistress, and an older man and younger man with her, and a whole pack of servants. These, of course, are the Lord of Carrick and his son—the woman is the one who came to see Inge in the very beginning of the book, who wanted the way cleared for her family to ascend the throne. Meg is deathly afraid of Inge now, and tries to convince her that the princess is long since dead, along with Davie, since they’ve both gotten away. But Marie pops up out of the bushes where she’s been hiding, telling them to let Meg go, and then the Lady Carrick stabs Marie. A child! Marie falls, and Inge tells her there was no need of that, and that the princess would have never been an obstacle for them. When the Lady Carrick’s husband and son find out that she consorted with a witch to clear the way for them to be king, they both abandon her. Then the local lord opts to get rid of Inge to erase any evidence of wrongdoing, and Meg confesses to Inge on her deathbed that she never stopped loving her.
Meg and Peem escape and find Davie again, and lose everyone else, and return to where Inge and Marie are lying. Inge promises to Meg that she’s sorry for what she’s done, and then who pops up out of the bracken? Marie. Not dead, just stunned, and saved from the stabbing by a large brooch she was wearing beneath her dress, the gift of the Orkney woman who kept them all winter. With nowhere to go and no one to take them in (Meg’s father dead, Master Spens dead, Peem with no family, Marie on the lam), they ask a favour from an old friend of Master Spens—they pack Marie off to Belgium, to be raised as a normal little girl. Meg confesses to Davie that she’d rather be married to Peem, after all this—he’s older and more mature, after all—and the three of them opt to go into business for themselves as traders instead.
Rating: A. This is one of those books that is pretty justly described as “a rollicking adventure.” For all the drama, it’s tempered with a good bit of humour and those gorgeous descriptions I mentioned before. Scotland is real and wonderfully, beautifully described—so well that it seems more real than some places I’ve actually been. You can just about smell the salt of the sea. Meg is so realistic! She makes some terrible mistakes, but she does some wonderful things—and her relationships with both Peem and Davie are written very well too. This is one of those very rare books that comes across as not even a little bit awkward—you never, ever get the sense that Meg is a modern girl in 13th-century Scotland—she is wholly and totally a product of her times. I think this book is a little hard to lay your hands on now, since I think it may be out of print, but you can find it used. And you should. It’s well worth the read even as an adult, and stands up fantastically.