Every now and again a book comes along that surprises you. I find myself reading a lot of Young Adult science fiction because I like the sound of the story and I love the different versions of society that authors can create. A completely different type of story caught my eye recently, one by a New Zealand author who I love. That book is called Ransomwood, by award-winning New Zealand author, Sherryl Jordan.
Spurned by her lover, and with her uncle threatening to marry her off to his odious widowed brother, Gwenifer is almost relieved to be sent away to escort the magistrate’s old, blind mother to Ransomwood, where the tears of the statue of the Holy Mother are said to have healing qualities.
Together with Harry, the village halfwit, who is escaping a sentence of hanging for being in charge of an ox that trampled a child almost to death, they embark on a perilous journey … each of them looking for a different kind of healing.
Ransomwood is a story of gossip, friendship, loyalty, suffering, acceptance and identity. It’s the story of three very different people thrown together to go off in search of a cure for their ailments and medicine for a dying girl. There is Halfwit Harry, the village idiot, whose fault it is that a little girl was trampled by oxen; Mother Dorit, an old crone who is thought to be a witch and is hoping to cure her blindness; and Gwenifer, who was caught with another boy who was betrothed. Each of the pilgrims is hoping to achieve something by journeying to Ransomwood to collect the tears of the Holy Mother.
As we follow the pilgrims on their journey, you learn that there is more to them than the other villagers have assumed. One quote from Mother Dorit that I love is about the gossip that flies around the village.
“If every word of gossip in Grimblebury was a bumblebee, the buzzing about the village would be enough to deafen the Good Lord Himself. And if every gossip word were true, I say there’d be a blessed silence, and not one drop of honey to be had. Nor anyone stung, for that matter.”
Mother Dorit is much more than the witch that others believe she is. She’s a wise, kind soul who cares for Gwenifer and Harry and reassures them that everything is going to be alright. Gwenifer is far from the girl of loose morals that others believe she is either. She wishes to escape the clutches of her uncle and his horrible brother, and make a life for herself, where she can decide where life takes her. Mother Dorit encourages her to follow her dreams by saying “If you have a dream, pick it up in both hands and shake it in the face of fate, and fight till you make every bit of your dream come true.” She grows incredibly throughout the story and even puts herself in danger to help her friends. My favourite character by far though has to be Harry. Although everyone (even Gwenifer at first) believes him to be a half-wit and should be treated like one, he is probably the wisest of the pilgrims. He truly regrets the awful thing that happened to Tilly and wants to make things right. He is incredibly loyal to both Gwenifer (who he affectionately calls ‘Gwennie’) and Mother Dorit and will do anything to protect them on their journey. One of my favourite parts of the book is when they are attacked by a group of men and Harry fights back with his pilgrim’s staff. He’s also incredibly gentle and loving, and adopts a bantam along the way that he nurtures. Harry actually reminded me of a bulkier version of Forrest Gump (think ‘I love you Gwennie’).
Sherryl Jordan’s writing is absolutely beautiful and she had me hanging on every word. She transports you to an England of long ago, where everyone lived off the land, you slept on the hard ground or scratchy straw, you cooked over a fire, and it took you days or weeks to get to where you wanted to go. Ransomwood will certainly be a finalist in next year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, if not the winner of the Young Adult category.
5 out of 5 stars