Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Anne of the Fens by Gretchen Gibbs

If you google the name Baugh and Madison County, Kentucky, you will easily discover the history of my family.  We can trace the Baughs back as far as the 1500s.  I've often looked at my family tree and, thought about the stories they could each tell over the course of all that time.

Well, Gretchen Gibbs must have had a similar thought because she has begun writing fiction histories about the women she descends from in her Bradford Chronicles.

The first of her books, The Book of Maggie Bradstreet took place in 1692 during the witch trials in Salem and in the Puritan settlement of Andover, Massachusetts, where Maggie lived.  I found it to be a compelling story, so when I saw that Gibbs had written the second volume, I couldn't wait to read it.

Anne of the Fens takes place much earlier, beginning in May 1627 in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire, England.  Anne Dudley may be a Puritan, but she is also a curious 15 year old who is beginning to feel strong feelings towards the opposite sex.  As fugitives for refusing to pay the tax King Charles I is demanding to finance his war with Spain, Anne and her family have been living in Tattershall Castle, where her father is a Steward for the Earl there, and away from their own home.  It's an arrangement Anne rather likes.

One Sunday morning, on the way to church, Anne inadvertently catches a bit of a May Fair production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and decides she must find out how their story ends.  When she questions her tutor, Simon Bradstreet, first about Catholicism and then Shakespeare, Anne is surprised by his responses, giving her a broad hint as to where Shakespeare's work is kept in the castle.

Unable to resist, Anne goes in search of it and discovers a secret room, with shelf after shelf of decidedly unpuritanical books, not just Shakespeare.  On a return visit, she senses someone has been in the room recently, and discovers who it is when her father asks her to take food to a fugitive hidden there.  The fugitive, John Holland, is a Puritan hiding from the Sheriff for writing and posting a tract about not paying the King's new tax. Anne finds herself more attracted to him now than she had been to Simon and looks forward to her nightly visits.

Trouble soon erupts, though, when Anne's spiteful younger sister Sarah posts a paper Simon had written to Anne about religious tolerance on the back of one of John Holland's tracts.  Soon the Sheriff shows up with warrants, and Anne decides she must help John Holland escape.  This is a decision that could ruin not just her reputation, but that of her family as well.  On the run, Anne soon begins to suspect that John may not be the kind of man she thinks he is when he leaves her in the fens in the middle of the night to make her way back to the castle alone.

Anne certainly learns some harsh lessons about human behavior in this novel, but one of the underlying storylines shows her budding interest in reading and writing poetry.  It is an interest she takes very seriously, eventually becoming the first woman poet in the United States.

I really enjoyed reading The Book of Maggie Bradstreet, so I was looking forward to Anne of the Fens and I wasn't disappointed.  It was a little disjunctive in the beginning since Maggie Bradstreet was Anne Dudley Bradstreet's great granddaughter, so the two books weren't read in a linear way, but I quickly got past that since both books stand on their own.

Anne of the Fens is an engaging story that follows Anne's journey from a young romantic to a mature woman in the midst of trying times.  The story is well written and well researched.  I found the descriptions of life in the early 1600s to be believable and, in fact, if you ever wondered what it was like to live in a castle back then, they are quite informative, and I can guarantee that some descriptions will certainly tickle your sense of smell.

But Anne's story is also relevant for today's reader.  As she becomes more and more aware of her awakening sexual feelings and makes decisions based on romantic notions, Anne inevitable makes the mistakes of youth that can sometimes have disastrous results.

Be sure to read the "Afterword" in which Gibbs relates what happened to the people included in her story and what their lives were like. The setting, England in the early part of the 17th century was a time of turmoil and religious intolerance.  Most of what was happening isn't really included in Anne's story, but there is enough for the reader to understand the contentious nature of the relationship between the Puritans and the government.  Be sure to read this as well as a brief History of the Times that Gibbs includes for more information.  There is also a poem by Anne, one that is begun in the story and finished later.  The language may sound a little old fashioned, but the meaning is still easily grasped.

Anyone who enjoys a love story surrounded by history will enjoy reading Anne of the Fens.  Who know, it might even inspire some of you to look into your own family history.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

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