Anne of the Fens by Gretchen Gibbs is a historical young adult novel about a fifteen year old girl whose budding curiosity crosses paths with a young man her father is hiding from authorities (available April 30, 2015).
Anne Dudley is a fifteen year old who has very little experience when it comes to trouble – that’s more her sister Sarah’s issue. Raised as a Puritan, Anne knows it is wicked to lie, cheat, steal, and lust after men. Still, she is caught in a world that is anything but Godly and pure. Her religion prohibits the reading of certain books, like William Shakespeare. And, on the other side of things, King Charles I is demanding taxes and limiting her family’s freedom because of their religion.
When Anne discovers her father is hiding a Puritan fugitive from the King’s justice, she finds herself learning how to lie. She sneaks the man, John Holland, food. During their midnight meetings, she discovers that perhaps she feels more than just duty towards him. However, as she gets to know John and becomes better at telling lies, she starts to wonder if she isn’t being lied to.
Anne of the Fens is based on the historical life of a girl who would grow up to become America’s premiere female poet Anne Bradstreet, who is an ancestor of author Gretchen Gibbs – and the passion for her predecessor in life and letters is clear in Gibbs’ novel. It’s a story set against the dark, threatening landscape of pre-English Civil War, when men and women were hanged or burned alive for their religious beliefs.
Gibbs does a lovely job setting the tone of the piece early on. The language is formal – rather like Witch of Blackbird Pond in tone and Puritanical subject matter (though with more romantic underpinnings) – and evokes the historical sense of the day. In the opening sequence of the novel, Anne is chasing her young sister, Sarah, through a fair that neither girl is supposed to be attending. Sarah’s run away from church and it’s fallen to Anne to bring her back. Gibbs’ uses this section to introduce Anne as a girl with more than a passing interest in men and the Bard himself, Shakespeare.
Shaking, I forced myself into the crowd again, looking wildly about. It was then I heard a woman’s voice raised in anguish. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
I turned to see a young woman upon a stage, hands clasped to her heart. I stopped, knowing I must hear more. She called for her lover, and he answered.
People shoved at me and stepped on my feet, but I didn’t feel it. I forgot about Sarah, I forgot about my family in the church, I watched on. The lovers’ families despised one another, but Romeo and Juliet intended to overcome their hatred. They might be forced to say good night, but they were determined to marry.
Parting is such sweet sorrow. Romeo’s voice was loving as he reached up to the balcony for her hand.
A sharp jab in my side brought me out of my spell. There was Sarah, icing dripping down her chin. I wanted to hug her and shake her at the same time.
Ultimately, it’s Anne’s romantic sentimentality that gets her into trouble. She discovers the hidden room where fugitive John Holland is tucked away. He’s everything she could want: handsome, well-read, and with religious views that line up with her father’s.
The hand that pulled me from the floor was strong and hard. I settled myself on the stool, pulling my shift down over my legs as far as it would go. I felt his eye upon me and knew I was blushing. He put the candle on the floor, and sat on his bed, among the rumpled blankets. His shift was short, and I could see a great deal of his muscular legs with their dark hair.
“You have not told me who you are.”
He did not reply for a moment.
“It could be dangerous to know me,” he said then.
But then there’s Simon, the man who has tutored Anne in reading, writing, and religion. In an arguably misguided, possibly preachy, way to show her how he feels, he writes her a note that winds up on the board – the place where all the news is posted. An investigation into the note leads the King’s men to Anne’s home, and straight to John Holland.
Then Anne is forced to make a decision: stay with Simon, or risk her reputation and life to help John Holland escape?
This decision will change her life.
Anne of the Fens is a very quick read, smooth and easy to fall into. Though solidly historical in tone, this novel is geared towards teen readers. Gibbs’ obvious passion for the subject matter drives a lot of the material forward: the love of Shakespeare, poetry, writing, and Anne Dudley Bradstreet herself are all beautifully represented but not difficult to follow. A sharp young reader who has been paying attention in literature class will find some fun Easter eggs here.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.
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