So when I talk about the style or look Renaissance festival culture (one of the original inspirations for the novel), it’s sometimes a little tricky to pin down. Everyone has so much freedom of individuality, that while there’s a basis of historical material, well–
I like to imagine the faires are little Renaissance towns visited by time travelers, and thus any signs of not-perfect historical accuracy are due to their influence. We’re here to have fun.
That’s sort of how I think of this novel. Sure, there are historical, cultural threads (a lot of different ones, actually) reminiscent of a medieval world–
–but there’s also magic.
And whatever you think, this place really isn’t like anywhere else you’ve been. At least not if I’ve done my job right.
Sure, there are familiar elements. I wrote it with the idea of coming home to the medieval fantasy world I’d been reading and dreaming of for most of my life. So of course there are castles and forests and dirt roads leading nowhere and everywhere.
But that’s not all there is to it.
I’ve been reading this genre for a long, long, time, right? And you know, you know from my book reviews that I am An Absolute Snob who does not appreciate a world Baked Halfway.
If you put bacon and eggs on a plate with a cup of coffee in a medieval fantasy, I will revolt. And have. Politely.
It’s in the details. The little things.
Maybe you’d like to hear about a few?
What’s for dinner?
I don’t know why, but food is one of the first things I notice when I’m deciding if a fantasy book has good worldbuilding or not.
A few examples:
Bilbo’s seed cakes from The Hobbit and Faramir’s pale wine in The Lord of the Rings,
The Grecian-style diet of olives and dates from Turner’s The Thief,
Suspicious Inn Stew, apples, bread, and cheese.
And just so you know, turkey leg = Renaissance festival. Like–unanimously. If you have turkey legs and funnel cake, bookmarkedone is probably certain this is the urban equivalent of a fairy outpost and yes, everything is going to be just fine, thank you.
While the last option of stew, bread, and cheese is classic–it’s notorious for getting boring really quickly.
So one of the things I happily explored in Draft I was medieval/Renaissance food (yes I use pieces of both, please don’t kill me. It’s my world, so I make the rules).
Warning: If you read past this point, you may get hungry.
There are more than a few recipes I really need to try making myself now.
Spiced nut mix
Pralines I have had. If you haven’t, I am very sorry and hope that you have a chance to taste them sometime in the very near future.
Being the little wild creatures that they are, both R and D have a sweet tooth. But that’s a tricky thing to satisfy in a convincing medieval story when refined white sugar isn’t a thing and chocolate, my beloved chocolate, is desperately hard to come by.
Luckily you can make spiced nut mix with syrup or honey, or without. The version in the book uses a spice I’ve actually never heard of before doing the research.
Because it’s fallen out of popularity, not because I don’t know my seasonings.
I really, really need to make torrone.
It’s not chocolate, but it’s this light, fluffy confection made from egg whites and almonds. Hailing from Italy, torrone has lots of variations–you can sweeten with honey, add dates, or swap out the almonds for pistachios.
Guys, it looks so good.
Bread and cheese
Well…I couldn’t quite help myself.
But before you cluck your tongue at me, it’s not cold, dry bread eaten out of a rucksack in some dreary ditch along the roadside, pine tree dripping water down your collar. No, we can do better than that.
It’s fresh bread, shared among friends, cheese warmed and melty over an open fire.
I may have recently done toasted cheese sandwiches (with mixed results) over a campfire. I had to make sure my characters tried something similar.
Edible findings in the forest
Did you know you can eat dandelion greens? No, really. They’re supposed to be quite good for you.
Don’t–don’t go fish the ones out of your yard that have been sprayed with like a zillion pesticides by suburban lawn maintenance madmen, okay (yes this is about mowing their lawns every day can we not coordinate so there isn’t a constant vrrrr noise in the garrett all summer long)?
Anyway, next time you’re wandering in a primeval forest, if you’re a fragile Level 1 Chosen One and don’t feel quite up to taking down a stag or wild boar, now you know you can survive off of edible greens, nuts, blackberries (personal experience again on this one: beware the Thorns and Things that Live in Them), and even a few mushrooms–as long as you know how to identify the non-poisonous ones.
But there’s a lot more to worldbuilding than food.
Other things I utterly delighted myself with while filling the novel pages?
Currency. This can be a headache, or it can be fun. After all, it doesn’t always have to be a king or queen on the coin. It doesn’t even have to be a coin.
Laws of Hospitality–more on this in the next post, but This is A Thing in the book.
Language/writing systems–oh dear, oh dear can I get carried away on this.
Types of greetings. I’m a performer, so the little bow is deeply ingrained in my behavior, but this can also apply to handshakes or verbal greetings. And yes, they differ by culture! Another place I have too much fun.
Government. Monarchies are traditional, but is the king/queen ratio the same as this world? Is the king the absolute authority? Because–spoiler alert–historically, that isn’t always the case.
Fashion. Not only do I get to design the motley for my performers (is there ever enough sunflower yellow?), I get to imagine how style changes in the different nations/cultures. Because just as my little bards don’t belong to one family or bloodline, they don’t belong to one country or culture, either.
Music. If you haven’t figured this out yet, when in doubt, just assume I get carried away worldbuilding.
I know. As wonderful a place as it is to live and write in for an afternoon, one must not have too much world without a substantial support of plot. It works as a rich foundation, details peeking out here and there, giving a sense of depth. But I can’t include everything.
Fairies, bards, bags of buttons, mushroom hats and turkey legs–
She’s back from the Renaissance faire, with pocketfuls of trinkets and stories to share!
Yes, this has taken me almost a month to publish. NaNoWriMo22 has been stealing all my braincells and I had a few internet crashes that deleted parts of the drafted post from WordPress.
(devastated bookmarkedone noises)
And the usual struggle with my cryptid-stole-the-trail-camera blurry photo quality.
Or, y’know, we could just say good things come to those that wait and that this is such a brilliant post it required that much time and attention.
Let’s go with that.
A brief explanation of Renaissance festival recaps for the uninitiated:
bookmarkedone, among other unexpected odd jobs, works at Renaissance festivals. It is as fun as it sounds.
She’s a bard. Violin. Celtic, fiddle, classical, and anything else the situation calls for. It calls for a lot you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, she could just stay on the classical stage and be a “good violinist…” but it’s so much more fun to run away to the realm of folk musicians for a day and be ridiculously OP.
There will be no photos of said bard in character/costume because of modern technology restrictions at work (and because of the blurry “the cryptid realized it was on camera” quality of every picture I take. To the dandelion puff with six-foot scepter who got a good photo of us together…I’m a smidge jealous).
Because there are scandalously few renfaire blogs/almost nobody who writes about what it’s like to actually work at these events, you’re about to read the perspective from the inside…which is very different from being a casual patron.
…we do these recaps every year, so I don’t really remember what else I’m supposed to say here. If stuff doesn’t make sense, hey! Go read the recaps from the last couple of seasons. We skewer pumpkins and cheer for bloodshed. Great fun.
Having apologized to our regular readers for the delay, we now return to recounting the adventure.
By the time I got there on Saturday, there was already a line.
Not a line. There was a chain of people from the ticket booth through the little cut in the trees leading to the parking field, into the field itself and down a couple rows of cars.
It was long. Like a city block long. And I was getting there shortly after 10:00 a.m. The faire didn’t even open until ten.
I didn’t have time to stop and stare because I was in a hurry to get inside, but as I was hiking across the field, I did gawk.
I can remember the days when Dragonfest was a handful of tents in a parking lot. This was–a lot. I don’t have an official tally because no one bothered to tell me, but I’ve never seen this many people there.
And of course every one of them was going to hate me a little bit for slipping past without a ticket.
Normally I gloat about this (to my friends. Not to strangers. I’m not that rude). Violin gets me in places as I please. Concert halls. Renaissance faires. Museum fundraisers. No lines.
But that day…
They had these little wood stakes with cord at about waist height to keep people in the line, and after I was finally close enough to actually see the frazzled clerks in the ticket booth–
I realized I was on the wrong side of the line.
I’d hiked the whole way, chin up, consciously not looking to see if people were giving me the “doesn’t that girl know she has to wait in line like everyone else” looks, only to realize the entrance was on the left of the wall of people and I was on the right.
So I did the only sensible thing there was to do.
I ducked under the rope and stole into the faire I work at.
In front of about a hundred people.
So because I was only too aware everyone was watching me (it’s not like they had anything better to do; grass doesn’t grow fast in October and there was no paint to dry)
and I didn’t want everyone either
to hate me for apparently stealing my admission or
to go “well, she got away with it,” and follow me like a horde of too many petulant ducks–
I found someone taking tickets and waited until he had a breath so it was clear I wasn’t the miscreant everyone absolutely thought I was.
I know what you’re thinking at this point. “Why is she spending this long talking about the line?”
Because the character you’re about to meet pretty much made my faire experience this year, and I’m not skipping him.
Besides. It was an impressive line.
So there’s sort of a tradition among some ticket-takers at faires.
It’s the tradition of The Troll.
You’re here for the experience, right? Ordinary people don’t go to renfaires. Or if they do, they’re not ordinary by the time they leave. You’re here to have some fun. And we who work at the faire are going to give it to you–so why not make something boring (here’s your wristband, here’s your change, next), well, let’s say unexpectedly amusing.
Where do you meet trolls in fairytales, kiddos? Trying to cross a bridge. Gotta pay your toll. So if you meet “a troll” at the gates to renfaire?
I knew a lady once who said she’d make kids swordfight with her (they were blunt practice swords, not real blades, I repeat, we are not handing children real steel) before they could go through the gate. Sometimes it’s just banter, they’ll tease you a little, chat about your costumes, tell jokes, be a little mean, pretend they won’t let you in until you answer a question or a riddle–if you’re in the mood for it, gate trolls can be great fun.
You never know if there’s going to be one or not.
Up I walk, violin case on my back, to this gentleman in a hat with Dragonfest buttons,
and as politely as possible, I say, “I just want to let you know, I’m not sneaking in. I work here.”
Important note. They don’t brief the crew on who’s cast and who isn’t. Most of us don’t know each other before we meet there, on the grounds, that day. Oh, we fall together naturally enough, look after each other like family, but this clerk has no way of knowing I am what I say…and come to think of it, I have zilch way to prove it.
He looks at me, back at the ticket-counting he’s doing, then at me again.
And this is when I find out he’s The Troll.
“Do I believe that?” he says.
I stop. I think he’s serious. I’m just about to worry, when he says, “You know, I think I do.”
That’s it. Troll likes you, in you go.
I’m laughing by now, and I promise to come back to play him a tune later as my proof of employment. And since he’s a lovely person, he agreed to tell me a story, as a trade.
I love renfaire.
Argh. I put off writing this post for so long.
Because I have to decide what stories not to include or write such a huge post I can’t even muster the strength to proofread and finish it.
So much stuff happened.
You know I’m a writer, so I’ve honed my skills, paying attention to everything, remembering the details until I get a chance to write them down. But everything happened so much at Dragonfest that I started to feel like I was on a carousel, whirling around and around, the faces of people I met blurring together until I was left sitting on a porch swing clutching a pink rock and wondering where I’d gotten it.
The answer, by the way, is that a fabulous mushroom hat girl gave it to me. She asked if I’d like a token and offered me the rock or my choice from a bag of buttons. She wasn’t crew; she was just someone who wanted to share and be part of the fun. I played her a jig in trade, and she danced so the charms on her hat clinked together in the very best way.
And nearly stepped on her phone before a friend yoinked it almost out from under her heel and narrowly averted disaster, but that’s not the point.
She was actually one of two people I met like that at the faire. The other was a younger girl, probably the MG book author’s dream audience. She’d made what she called “spells,” and told us all about them–potion for strength, fairy dust–I can’t recall the others now, but she had a name and a gift for each.
Guys. Guys, this girl gave me fairy dust.
She was very serious about the whole thing, and so I reacted with proper respect. After she gave me the tiny bottle, she said, with utmost solemnity, that she’d only offered to give me fairy dust because I was very talented.
So, anyway, that girl is kind of my hero, and I’m keeping the fairy dust because it’s the coolest and I love it and yes, none of you stand a chance against me anymore.
You don’t say “Are we there yet?” at the faire. Munching your turkey leg, sticky and dusty and sweaty, pockets full of treasure, you say “When is the joust?”
It’s not like I have a watch. I don’t need one. When it’s time for the joust, the grounds empty to fill the stands, sit on the grass, perch on hay bales, crowd around too close to the tilting field and get cheerfully told off for entering “the blood zone.”
But there’s also that weird between-time while everyone is settling into seats and waiting for the knights to emerge on the field.
And that, friends, is exactly when I make my mischief.
A word of warning–there’s probably a very simple reason why I get on well with the gate trolls.
I played “Drunken Sailor” by the drink booth. Twice. The wandmaker got “Hedwig’s Theme.” Deadpool cosplayers (traditionally) get the theme from the Titanic (don’t…don’t ask). Most of the song choice thought process for me is, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…”
There’s a tradition, with the joust.
Ever heard of a sweet little film called A Knight’s Tale?
(first of all, if you want to understand renfaire culture, go watch A Knight’s Tale, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When you’re utterly confused, come back. That’s right).
Okay, so in Knight’s Tale, the soundtrack is primarily Queen songs. And the opening is “We Will Rock You.”
I mean, it wasn’t so much needing to learn it as being scandalized that it wasn’t in my repertoire. It had to be done.
So when I happened to cross paths with the new court jester…
Great guy, by the way. Jigged for me. Orange and blue motley that most definitely did not get its dye from the Renaissance era and We Do Not Care.
I stopped him in the King’s Tent.
“Might I petition you for some mischief?” I asked.
Guys. This man was so excited he couldn’t speak properly. When he finally got the words out he said, “That is literally my job.”
I told him what I wanted. All he had to do was start the rhythm. Stomp-stomp, clap. The crowd knows it. The crowd always knows it. I’d do the rest.
We split in different directions. He went left. I went right. The crowd heard us coming.
You remember that troll I told you about earlier (henceforth he will only be referred to as “the Troll” because I never caught his name. His official title is bard because he’s quite a good storyteller, but I think you can see how that would be confusing)?
His hands appeared above the heads of the crowd, clapping. Somehow, he and I wound up walking in step through the crowd, clapping, playing, confusing everyone.
There were patrons on both sides of the tilting field, and by the time the knights entered, they’d only just caught wind of what was happening, and half the patrons were utterly lost, but the jester, the Troll, and I? We amused ourselves, if no one else. The Troll was quite pleased with having music follow him around (the sort of “I could get used to this” satisfaction).
I don’t have the words to tell you how I was grinning.
After officially adding “rabble-rousing” to my resume…
I’m pretty sure I played for my steel fighting friends’ rivals.
Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. I knew there was a split a few months ago (I think I was graduating at the time, so I’m not really clear what happened), but it wasn’t until Dragonfest that I learned they’d formed their own fighting group.
Drama? Eh. Not really.
You’ve got to remember, renfaire players are family. We look out for each other.
And I’ve never been one to care about the drama of who stepped on whose toes anyway. The boys can work out their squabbles without me being involved.
So when one of the former members said I could play for their fight, if I wanted…I wanted.
A crisp fall day, watching men in full steel armor slam each other over the head with swords and axes while “Thunderstruck” is going in the background–what more could one ask for?
This. One could ask for this.
What you are looking at is the keyring designed by one of the young ladies on the crew. And the story she told me is that each fighter has a specific design (there was an adorable cat asking for carnage sticker…unfortunately the fabulous lady fighter that one was based off of wasn’t at Dragonfest so we didn’t get to meet). The one I picked out belonged to the axe fighter–I think he’s called the Woodcutter. Story goes the designer presented this adorable cat to him and he said no.
Don’t like it. Too cute for me.
Lucky thing, the designer said yes, it’s cute, and yes, we’re using it, because people like cute things and they’ll buy it.
Yes, we do, and yes, I did.
I told her the dangerous kitty would be joining my Plague Doctor Dragon on my violin case (from the year Dragonfest had to be cancelled. Dragon in a top hat. It’s great. None of my orchestra mates have ever noticed it), so now the dragon key ring has a friend.
She was understandably delighted by the idea.
I joked later that if the two rival steel fighting groups wanted to fight over who got the fiddler, I wouldn’t mind.
Because if they never book the same events, then I get to go to twice as many renfaires with my friends. Behold my devious brilliance!
(I did say you wouldn’t stand a chance now that I have fairy dust)
In retrospect…one of the lieutenants from the original group did get in touch out of the blue this week…
(sounds of bookmarkedone hoping she hasn’t been too devious for her own good)
Anyway, more stories!
I’m running out of space in this post for everything that happened.
I went back to the line and strolled along it for a while, trying to give the people waiting something entertaining and wound up appearing at the same time that King Henry arrived to greet his guests and tell them the joust had been delayed so they wouldn’t miss it…so it looked a bit like I was a king’s bard.
There was a little man in a Hogwarts T-shirt, crown, and cape, so I played “Hedwig’s Theme” for him. There was a little Gandalf with his dad who looked understandably put out on hearing it (no Gandalf likes being mistaken for Dumbledore). So the Shire Theme followed, and I think they were both mollified.
I made fun of my friends (still waiting in line, ha, ha), full knowing that none of the other people in the line knew that I’d brought them and would probably be thinking I was just very comfortable striking up conversations with perfect strangers.
Met a couple of mushroom hat girls later who told me they’d stood in line for at least an hour.
I felt really bad about this for a while–it was nobody’s fault, of course, and the ticket trolls were doing their absolute best to get everyone through as fast as possible–but I heard we got nasty review about it online.
(cue bookmarkedone being slightly crushed)
I felt better after hearing about the lines at DragonCon. Someone told me the “line was part of the experience,” a way to meet other patrons, slow down, anticipate what’s to come. I hope that’s true and most of the patrons felt that way. The Troll and I agreed to come back and play the line together the second day (spoiler: I didn’t make it because I was physically exhausted and almost fell asleep in a hard kitchen chair. I’m sure if we had done it together, the line would have been an attraction in itself).
But enough about downsides.
I saw Lady Jillian of the Famously Amazing Hair Clasps (my bestowed title for her, not her official one) and bought more hair sticks because they’re pretty and make me feel like a little wizard,
The rock booth lady (whose name I do not know), but who happily sold me a chunk of carnelian and chided me for not playing closer to her booth (we’d been next-door neighbors at the last faire when I was with my mercenary buddies). I played Paganini 20 for her and chatted with her daughter, who is already an accomplished jewelry-maker herself. I poked through their rings (wire wrapped. All handmade. Gorgeous), and asked her if they were arranged by size.
She bit back a sigh. They were, at the beginning of the day–
I was already nodding, commiserating. After a hundred hands passing over the shiny baubles, any organization was quite undone.
And I saw Lady Kiki again, of the famous earrings (and 2Cellos fan). There was also a booth with little terrariums with wire trees (the wind was blasting the tents down, so the little globes didn’t stand a chance. Two were shattered, at least). The proprietor told me she has a video of last year’s performance in her phone.
This was…a somewhat odd announcement? I get a lot of comments working at faires, and you learn to roll with the weirdness of our lives and professions, but is there an appropriate response to a stranger saying she has a recording of your playing?
She was actually very nice and said she shows it to people when she’s persuading them to come to Dragonfest (you should come! see this cool fiddler? don’t you want to listen to her in person?). So that’s flattering. And considering the number of photos/videos people have taken of me performing with (or without) my permission…honestly I probably shouldn’t spend the time thinking about it.
There were also a few new vendors this year, so since I’ve been attending or performing at the faire every year since it started but one–
I had ample opportunity to spread my arms wide and say “Welcome to Dragonfest!” like that scene from the first How to Train Your Dragon film.
It’s every bit as satisfying as it seems.
And of course, one must visit the fairies.
I mean, what are you even doing if you don’t pay a visit to the Fae Court?
Or in my case, an empty tent with one slightly forlorn gentleman guarding it because the fairies were out making mischief and drinking tea.
We had a nice chat, anyway. He told me the fairies had flown, and I nodded a little to myself and said, “Yes. They tend to do that where I live, too.”
That’s not to say I didn’t see them. They were scattered across the faire, charming everyone with bubble wands.
Life always can use a bubble wand.
I’m sure I’m leaving out so many stories. The gymnast tumblers who were so good at their art. The kind lady who offered to let me stash my violin case with her instead of under a tree and made sure I would do so again on the second day so it wouldn’t sprout legs or get tampered with. Thistlegreen playing “John Ryan’s Polka” with me first thing in the morning on his pennywhistle. Listening to the Troll tell stories on the little stage at the end of the day, all of us cozy and tired out. Said Troll inviting me to have a stage set, even though I hadn’t been scheduled for one (I declined…but that’s not to say I wasn’ t very much touched at the offer). Losing the Tree of Life pendant I bought at my very first gig with the mercenary fighters (a little heartbroken, but I’m half hoping someone else picked it up and has a faerie treasure now. It’s what I get for running to greet my fighter friends and leaving it on a cord it could so easily slip off of). Trolling the Larp and HEMA fighters with song selections. Everything. Everything, everything, that I can’t put into words, all the sounds and smells and sights and friends that you simply have to be there to understand.
It’s all done for another year. Everyone’s packed up and gone home, cozying in for the winter season. Won’t see one another again until spring.
So we’re left with the frost on the windows and the trinkets and the memories.
And the plots. And the plans. And the practicing of repertoire for next faire. And the maps.
Because, you know, the world is full of faires. And what sort of people are we if we don’t daydream about seeing the very best of them?
So to say there has been chaos in my home lately is an understatement.
There has been chaos. Understatement made.
But it’s also June! And for those of you who don’t know, June is the month when I read far too much, hunt for fireflies, and watch the Days, hours, minutes and seconds until next faire counter on the White Hart website tick slowly down to zero.
I love faire sites with the countdown timer. Makes it all so much more exciting.
But with the whole graduation thing and crashing and being sick for a couple of weeks, it slipped my attention until the calendar flipped to June and suddenly the faire is ten days away? That’s it?
I haven’t been to a faire since October (yes, read the post please, read the post), so I was very ready for this. And I am sentimental for White Hart. It’s one of the faires I went to as a kid, so it has a special place in my heart.
And since I went last year with my mercenary steel fighting buddies, I popped a message to one of them asking if we were on the crew again this year.
(Cue sounds of bookmarkedone being emotionally crushed).
I hadn’t actually realized how excited I was for White Hart until I realized the gang wasn’t going.
But that’s alright. Just because I wasn’t working the faire didn’t mean I couldn’t go to the faire. As myself. Just for fun.
And I haven’t done that since…oh…
…(whispers) cancelled for Plague in 2020…Dragonfest the year before that…uh…I didn’t even realize I’ve been doing this for that long…
Let’s just say it’s been a few years, okay?
And my pirate buddy (yes, the same one from the Dragonfest 2021 post) wanted to tag along, so before you say “turkey leg,” we had a plan to go as patrons.
In costume, of course. Like, seriously. How could you not go in costume?
So I gathered my buddies and counted my crew, hauled the long dresses and leather pocket-bags out of the closet and waited.
And listened to the end of Portents of Chaos and waited.
And checked the weather forecast three times and waited.
And I think it’s just an unspoken tradition or some kind of innate instinct in my family that one simply must be working on costumes the night before.
Okay, so technically it was the afternoon before, and it wasn’t really a costume thing because I have a cool steampunky dress that needs no more tweaking! But yes, I was making water bottle holders (is there a name for that? It’s like a macrame plant hanger except for a bottle) the day before going. They turned out rather well. A lady stopped us in a booth to say I should make them to sell, so…that’s a nice compliment to get.
Anyway, Saturday morning finally arrived and we all trooped out, maps, playlists, snacks, sunhats at the ready–
–and had to make a quick stop at the auto place.
Here’s where I should stop to explain a little feature of Ren faire/cosplay/concert musician culture. If you finished an event and are absolutely starving, it’s totally okay to stop at a little all-hours, hole-in-the-wall restaurant in garb. Especially if it’s late at night and/or you’re there with the crew (because if you bring an army of cosplayers, really, nobody’s going to question your actions. Here’s your waffles. Please leave a tip). Going for ice cream at 10:30 at night in tuxedos and black formal gowns? Totally cool. Even later and you’re dropping into Village Inn wearing a ballgown? They won’t ask. Waffle House at three in the afternoon in combat armor? I personally know people who have done it and reported no reaction. Breakfast before ComicCon with the crew all squished into one booth? You’re probably going to have someone take a picture, but hey, they’ll be subtle about it. And you can’t blame them. You all look great, don’t you?
How did this start? I have no idea. I think to some degree it’s innate–the Must Have Waffles instinct kicking in. It is not to be denied.
And this isn’t just something I’ve observed. Cue the Reddit post, please!
Do I believe an immortal Greek god runs a restaurant chain and thus attracts Ye Weirdoes to his abode? No. Do I believe that a spirit of weirdness, what cares, waffles and chaos inhabits late-night diners?
Yeah. That sounds about right. It’s pretty normal to show up in garb to a place like that, if anything we do can really be called normal at all.
But does an auto shop have that energy?
Um. No. No, that’s just an awkward silence and standing halfway behind people not in garb and pretending not to care until you can bolt out the door again like startled jackrabbits.
I’ve gone shopping for ice cream in a floor-length black dress. I should be used to it by now.
Anyway, it was a quick stop, and we were soon on the road again, laughing at people’s careful lack of reactions.
We didn’t quite get lost.
Someone told me when I was small that you can’t have a good road trip without getting lost at least once, and it’s something I’ve repeated probably more than my fair share. It’d been a year since I headed up that way, and even with the maps, there’s a long stretch of country road that makes you bite your lip and think, “No, no, we really must have blinked and missed it somewhere back there.” You haven’t. You still haven’t.
It’s funny, the things I remember and the things I don’t. I remembered the sudden curve in the road (Go right. Yes, yes, yes, I’m sure. I remember this.), the shape of bramble thorns and brush bent into almost right angles by a fence or tree that is no longer there, the little white church (no, wait, there are two of them and you only see one if you really have gone the wrong way), even the shape of some of the hills, the way the oak trees shade the road a little no matter what time of day you swish past them.
I remembered where the drive was a second too late to turn into it, but hey. Nobody’s perfect, right?
And then it was just down the long, white-gravel drive to the wooden palisade, pennons fluttering in the breeze.
It was also really hot.
Renaissance festivals in June are their own kind of creature. You will burn. You will boil. You will sweat. You will swish your skirts to catch the breeze and buy fans from the vendors and grimly pity the jousting knights in full combat armor and yearn for the return of autumn and faires where you can wear a heavy cloak–and yet you will still have a fabulous time.
Maybe it’s the determination. Maybe it’s knowing that it’s so important to us to be there that we’ll come even in the heat to be together, to build this place, this thing, this moment.
Maybe we’re just crazy.
It’s like we all become family for the day, some strange sort of secret club, whether you’re in costume or you’re a patron coming for the first time. I hear it when people start telling me stories, a little haltingly as if realizing I’m a perfect stranger in a very nice sunhat, the way the vendors act as if they’ve known you for years even though you’ve never met. I hear it in my own voice, suddenly chirping and bright instead of burned-out tired, grinning before I run away again. It’s in the way we dress too, even if you didn’t come in costume. Little touches, a nerdy T-shirt, a bracelet with a Norse hammer amulet, the Elf ears with an otherwise normal outfit, earrings you just bought, a shimmer of this fairyland coating your skin–or maybe that’s just the sweat.
Whatever it is, it brings us together. One community, one group, one crowd, standing in the tents before the joust, screaming for blood.
That doesn’t sound–um–no, we actually do that. Hip, hip, huzzah, if it please the good sir to take the other man’s head off. Or, y’know, a cantaloupe.
Yeah, Sir Charlie and the Knights of Mayhem were back. I’ve been to a lot of their jousts by now (sometimes two or three times per faire), so I know the drill pretty well–two lances into a hay bale, a decapitation each, and then the full tilt, four lances (or as many as they have left at the end of the day) against each other until the painted wood is shattered to smithereens. I know Sir Charlie’s jokes, too, some of them funny, some of them bad puns, some even a little political or saucy.
I still go. Even if, I confess, I’d sometimes rather cheer for Sir Charlie’s opposition. And it’s fun this time too, because I know all the beats of their routines, it’s like I’m in on the joke. I can already be smirking at my friends, watching for their reactions by the time Sir Charlie delivers his punchline. And, I hope, bringing the crowd a little more to life.
We were all pretty limp fish in the heat by the one o’clock joust. There were even (amusingly) murmurs of dissent and revolution when Queen E. arrived to take her seat on the dais. Nobody curtsied.
But then in rode Sir Charlie, and, well. He knows how to play a crowd, in the way only a good performer can. One who can command his audience and amuse them at the same time. Before long, we were howling for both the nights, screaming as they charged, trying to keep track of who was ahead (as much as you can scream in a stuffy tent canopy, sweating so much you don’t even want to breathe).
Sometimes, I guess it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a show, heard the same song. If it’s good, you can have a go again.
I know the pictures are kind of blurry, but I’m too giddily proud that I got the shot right as Sir Marcello was about to whack the melon. I’ve now seen the decapitation segment with cabbages, pumpkins, and now cantaloupes. Changes with the seasons, you know.
But of course, Ren faire isn’t all jousting and chugging cold water while lamenting the heat from the shade of the oak trees. It’s also turkey legs and funnel cake (in Ye Non-Plague-Infested-Times), fencing, music (um, hello? Did you forget my job description?), costuming, vendors, the Rat Puck games, putting your friends in the stocks, posing with wanted pictures–anything one’s heart could desire, more or less. Queen E. was teaching a dance when we arrived. And although she was red-faced and completely out of breath when we stopped to say hello afterward, I confess to being a little envious that we were too late to join in.
We also got a tea shop booth this year. The vendor looked almost exactly the way you would expect a slightly mad tea shop proprietor to look–thick, frizzy hair, full costume, with a bright copper kettle hanging from her belt so it tangled in her full skirts. Perfect, in other words. She had either checkers or a tak board inside. I wish I could have stayed longer than I did. I think it was the same booth I darted in years ago to get out of the rain, refurbished but still rough and a little dark inside. A slightly creepy tea shop, then.
Then there was the potter, with all his mugs, quietly working away at his wheel on another while his wife sold their wares. It’s always a pleasure to watch him work, somehow both peaceful and startling. I have artist friends, so I have to appreciate the potter and exactly how good he is at what he does.
The answer to that is very, very good.
Who else was there? Hmm, there were the pirates I didn’t hang around because–well, I think we’d come to bardic disagreements. And I, without my instrument, was at a disadvantage.
There was the girl at the information booth yelling “Get your food! Get your T-shirts! Get your rat on a stick!” And when my pirate buddy and I were musing over which T-shirts we liked, “Skip the choice! Buy one of each.”
There were the mushroom hat cosplayers. There was the girl with the pink fairy skirt and her gothy friend in all black. There were the chainmail jewelry-makers, dancers, I think a fire-eater, but honestly I’m not sure, the man who runs the forge but didn’t most of the day because it was just too hot.
There was the lady with the rock booth with earrings, pendants, keyrings, polished crystal balls a little smaller than a baseball–and not just white crystal, either. Rose quartz, tiger’s eye–they were gorgeous. I had to pick one up just to feel its weight in my hand. She was a good vendor. She understood perfectly and let us touch and admire all the wares.
Including these, which I’ve been informed were her little daughter’s creation:
You knew I’d have to gab about my goodies eventually, right? I try to pick up some little trinket every year to remember the adventure by. I think the stone is real amethyst, and they just might be short enough that I can play the violin while wearing them.
If you have too-long earrings they bump against the instrument and scratch and buzz so why do all you lovely vendors keep making the coolest earrings that are two inches or longer arrrgh!
Anyway, the rock-booth-lady also had some pretty crescent moon shapes, and of course the little pocket size stones. They were all so gorgeous it took me a while to pick out the earrings. As I and several others teased her, we’d have happily bought out her entire stock.
Next stop was a little booth that at first glance, only had posters, frames, and prints. That’s great if you’re into the visual arts…which I’m not. But the Keeper of the Booth politely invited us in, and I’m very pleased she did.
I fell hard for her necklace pendants.
Aren’t they beautiful? We both gushed over them as she was wrapping them up for me. There was another little one with the night sky that struck my fancy, but someone bought it before I had a chance to make up my mind. It’s really for the best–I didn’t need to buy three new necklaces. I hope they’re very happy with it, whoever they are.
There are some vendors who are charismatic in their talk, the way they tell you the stories of their wares, have a scripted store of jokes to spice up the long day. But then there are vendors like her, who are simply sweet and charming because they love what they do and they’re delighted their crafts have found a home. It’s hard to say which I prefer, but I’m glad to have met both. She blew us a kiss as we left her booth with our treasures.
Last stop (which really, by logic, should have been the first stop), was a booth with all sorts of odds and ends–shawl pins, beads, wooden swords, pendants, juggling balls, and fans. It was so hot I decided to get a fan I could carry around the faire. I’d always skipped it before since my hands were busy with the violin, but I take breaks to chat with people, and then a little pocket breeze would be just the thing.
My pirate friend picked up a fan while we were browsing and tried to snap it open without much success. I waited a beat, then said, “Here. It’s like this.”
I flicked the fan open with one hand and started the “I’m a fancy lady at a glittering Victorian ball who would like to dance with a handsome gentleman but is probably also trash talking you in the most graceful way possible” flutter. You know the one.
Cue my pirate staring at me as if I were some sort of wizard. I laughed a little. I hadn’t even done the flick-and-flutter that smoothly, but then again, I guess I did know what I was doing. You pick up little skills like that in eccentric professions like mine.
Anyway, when I picked up one of the plain wooden fans, the three vendors who were chilling in the back started trying to get my attention.
This being a somewhat odd request, I made an effort to comply. It was probably an aromatic wood like olive, which I could not smell through the mask I was wearing.
So I asked, “What is it?”
“You can’t tell what it is?”
(Cue visible signs of bookmarkedone confusion). I shook my head. “No, I can’t.”
So apparently it’s common knowledge among Ren faire patrons what the scent of sandalwood is? As in “we think you jest if you say you don’t know it?”
That’s…not the most implausible thing I could say about us.
I took my time picking this one out, because I didn’t really want one with glitter or sequins or obviously plastic–nothing wrong with any of that, but I guess there’s a certain character I’m building when I play at the faires. A story, if you will, that’s not quite there. You have your lords and ladies, your pirates and your knights, goths, fairies, monks, rangers, D&Ders, and crafters–
And then there’s me.
When I was first starting to work at the faires, someone called me a “traveler” character. Someone who sees the world and carries a bit of all those places inside them. I think I like that explanation the best, fitting together my odd manners (still going to curtsy and say “sir” and “my lady,” but is not above playing the Rat Puck, running in a skirt, or hanging out with mercenaries) and the history, creating a character that probably never existed before but most certainly does now. And of course the costume reflects that, never as glitzy as the ladies in waiting, but never without attention to detail, either.
It’s more fun than sitting with the court. I get to be out where things happen as a traveler. I get to watch mischief and make more of it.
And music, of course. My music.
How was it, going to the faire without my violin?
Interesting. Lighter, I guess. I joked that it would be a lot of fun having both hands free to do things, although I’ve gotten very deft at one-handed maneuvers while I’m holding the violin in the other.
And after working the faires this long, it was fun pointing out (and occasionally getting noted) by people I knew. Queen E., of course, but also one of her guards (who stared at me a little too hard but couldn’t seem to remember before I’d slipped away), the fiddler I met officially at last Dragonfest (I was singing Scarborough Fair while walking down the main street as she was performing it for the queen. Nobody outside of my little crew even seemed to notice. Bungled the lyrics, of course, because I’m an instrumentalist and we don’t know what those are.), the Knights of Mayhem, ladies-in-waiting and patrons. I said I was there incognito, and without the violin, I kind of was. Even in costume, there was nothing to notice about me more than any other patron. No reason for anyone to guess that I knew these grounds so well
Well–at least, that’s what I thought.
We do this thing at the faires, where we send kids on quests. You go from one booth to another and ask a cryptic question, get a little coin or pebble, solve a riddle, have some fun, and maybe win a prize. I’ve played both sides, as the “NPC” and the adventurer, but what I didn’t expect was for a little fair-haired girl to come up and ask “Do you have a favor for me?”
I sort of blinked, wondering why out of everyone she’d picked me, before smiling and telling her I was afraid I didn’t and she went off with her dad. Probably she was just asking anyone, trying to solve her riddle, but–
My pirate friend leaned over and said, “So you’ve got a doppelganger.”
Whether it was from the description of the costume or character, the assumption was that I looked like whoever she was supposed to find.
Or maybe it was something in my manner, the way that I flowed so easily into the way the faire runs that I couldn’t quite hold up the illusion that I was just a visitor, incognito, enjoying myself for the day.
So now I’m home, and very tired. Drinking cold lemonade and listening to the wind make the tree outside my window creak. But I can’t quite call the adventure finished.
Tuesday morning, I got a message from my steel fighting friends. Because guess who got a short-notice invitation to perform at White Hart the second two weekends?
Yup. We did.
I’m already hoping to have some fun when I show up again with the violin and have people remember the odd little patron from the first weekend. Or, with my luck, not remember me at all.
So stay tuned! More mirth and mayhem might be coming.
It was sort of like getting your birthday twice in a year. I hadn’t expected to make it to any fair this year, and here I was, out of the blue, going to two, one after the other.
The week in between? I’ll admit it, there wasn’t the same giddy adrenaline shock of the first one. Of course, even I found that first fair a little ridiculous in terms of nerves. I’d completely forgotten I used to do this, but when I was a kid getting ready for performances, I’d hum or even just think “I Whistle A Happy Tune” from The King and I. Hoping some of Anna’s magic would rub off and I wouldn’t have so many butterflies. And there I was, years later, hands too jittery to tie back my hair, and it popped in my head.
I thought it was weird, since I hadn’t seen it in years…and then there was that moment of oh.That’s why I do that thing…
Honestly still not sure if it helps. Can’t hurt, right?
Anyway, waiting for the second fair was totally different. I knew I was going, so there wasn’t the should-I-dare-I-can-I-might-I tension. I had work to smash my way through so I could get the weekend off. I was tired. Some weeks are just like that.
But we had a family movie night before I headed out. Knight’s Tale. It’s pretty much what I would point to as a “That is renfaire,” movie, with maybe a few extra dashes of Monty Python in the background.
And before I get too far ahead of myself…
Please take a moment to appreciate this absolutely gorgeous Futhark rune box that I got at the first fair. I am of the opinion that you should always pick up a little trinket or two each year so when you’re wandering through your book lair on a rainy afternoon you can remember every adventure just by seeing them. I have so many little glass marbles and rings, leather-bound books…my hobby is slowly taking over my décor.
No complaints there.
The next morning, putting on the garb, getting on the road, sun above, squishing the violin case in the passenger seat with me–and everything was perfect. On to meet the steel fighters and play all the music I wanted!
Okay, a slight mishap. On our road trips, we all have our role to play regardless of how many people are in the car. I am, invariably, the navigator. If you get the reference to Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, even better. I keep the map.
About half an hour down the road…
…yeah, we had no map.
Still, we’d been there before, so we made it without mishap. It’s more easy than you think to hide a modest castle in the woods. Although to be fair, we did get lost on the way back. My fault. I said we should go left, and left led us straight to a washed-out dead end that could probably have passed for a river tributary.
Yeah, sorry about that. Apparently we were supposed to go right.
Anyway, I wasn’t lying about there being a castle. There is. We adore it. It’s at the summit of a hill in the center of acres and acres of oak forest, set so you can’t see it until you’re on the drive going up the hill, and then, through a gap in the trees, there it is. Waiting for you. In all its white splendor.
Of course, with all the people there for the fair, we couldn’t just drive up like we had when it was just the gang. Another irreplaceable part of Renfaire: parking on the grass in slightly crooked lines of cars and trying not to bite your tongue in half over the bumps.
Then it was just a hayride up the hill and into the fair itself.
Fun fact, though. Of the three or four people on the haywagon with us, all of them were talking about my steel fighting gang. About seeing them before, when the fight was going to be, even who they liked to watch.
I had my badge on my belt. We all have them, the same colors and figures marking us out in the crowd. Gets you past the ticket booth in a hurry. But I sometimes have a gift of going unseen. And I hadn’t been there for a year, after all.
I didn’t say anything. Just bit my lip and grinned behind my mask. Listened to every word. Of course I told the steel fighters about their fans after I was up the hill, like the good little spy I always have been.
Another fun thing about the fairs you might not know–each one has its own nobility. Kansas City, last I was there, has King Henry VIII and Catherine (which one, I’m honestly not sure. Howard? Aragon? Parr?). Most fairs choose Queen Elizabeth, but this one had Spanish nobility. I didn’t catch the full title. I hope it doesn’t mean a war between the fairs to mirror history since the one we were at before is ruled by a lovely Queen E. Unless there’s a naval battle. I could have some fun playing sea shanties…
Anyway, I discovered this about the reigning majesty because the mercenary steel fighters were summoned to a ceremony inside the castle.
We didn’t really know that’s what was going on, but we bumbled through the side door like the obediently distracted herd of goats we are.
The hall of that castle. Ooh. The other musician and I were all but vibrating with the need to play music and feel the acoustics. I’d done it once before…but I was quite ready to do it again.
Perhaps I should have felt a little more guilty about how disorganized we were. The king formally thanked our lieutenant for our services (free entertainment of bashing each other’s faces in plus music), and we all stood and clasped fist over heart (or violin) as one (more or less) out of respect.
Yeah. Distracted herd of goats. It wasn’t like we’d rehearsed.
I lingered a little afterward, hoping the hall would clear out so I could play without getting scolded for it. The violin’s a loud instrument and…I’m a bookworm. I don’t really like yelling over everyone else’s conversations, and that’s about the volume level.
And then, what would you know, but the lieutenant called my name.
The castle’s proprietor had asked him to ask me if I would play.
Asked. If I would.
Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha!
Yes. I’d be happy to do that.
So I played “The Wellerman.” It’s super simple, and as everybody went perfectly quiet in the hall and my adrenaline spiked, I knew I’d probably chosen wisely not to pick something more complicated.
I never know what to do when they all applaud. What do I do? I just played–did what I do–every day–like breathing–I should be so much better–
So I curtsied. It’s fun to do in a good skirt and that way I don’t quite have to look anybody in the eyes. I still can’t express how awkward I feel when it happens. In a good way. I think.
A little while after that, half a dozen of the sword-fighters were standing in a little knot, singing to fill the whole hall. Me personally, I have a high girl’s voice. I can sing Christine Daae’s arias from The Phantom of the Opera without really trying. This was about the perfect opposite of that.
You know I had to ask.
Would they sing “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit, please?
It was a gorgeous moment. I didn’t see exactly how it happened, but the king, who had been on the dais behind us, suddenly materialized beside me as if hearing the song had made him fling himself down the stairs in a straight line to join in.
Okay, so maybe we broke character a little bit. We made a new friend. And I got my wish. Unbeknownst to them, I am fully prepared to persuade the gang to sing again. Often.
I could go on. There are always a thousand little things at the fair that would take a lifetime to describe and a second to experience. The miniature sheep. Top hats with goggles. A little girl paying to put her dad in the stocks, the latter of which grinned and threw her over his shoulder and carried her, screaming aloud, on our entire march. The patron outside the ring of the final fight who somehow got a butterfly to land on his arm and stood there, very still, as if it were some kind of delicate, magical falcon on his wrist.
There are some things that just can’t be described.
And the longer I stay, the less afraid I feel. The more comfortable I am to just walk and play. Because there, it doesn’t matter if I mess up. I can make as many mistakes as I want, play the Sherlock theme because nobody’s going to stop me, experiment, turn one theme into another, make the heralds laugh at what I pick as they threaten those in the stocks with torture, I can talk, I can not say a word, I can just be.
You know I’m counting the days until the next time we meet.
So after making my way through Amy McAuley’s Violins of Autumn, it seemed only fair to make a list of World War II books that I actually did enjoy…or at least find deeply accurate to history. It’s a fascinating topic and makes for some thrilling (and sometimes tragic and deeply introspective) reading. So! Here’s the list.
For Freedom: The Story of a French Spyby Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: I seriously loved this one. It was deeply suspenseful but with very little shown violence after a rather gory opening. Suzanne was deeply likeable and kept her head about her the whole time she was involved in the Resistance, mistakes and all. She always knew who she could trust, and who she didn’t dare bring into danger. The book not only captures the vibe of the struggles in occupied France, it plunges headfirst into what it actually was like for a spy in a city teeming with enemy soldiers. And Suzanne has character–a life outside of war–she’s an opera singer! The best part? It’s based on a true story.
Nick of Time by Ted Bell: (not to be confused with the 1995 movie with the same name) If you’re in the mood for something with loads of action (and maybe a little too much violence), be sure to check out this middle-grade novel by an established adult thriller writer. Because if you’re going to go off the rails of what’s historically accurate, do it in style! Throw in some pirates, Admiral Lord Nelson, and DaVinci time travel atop the pile of a Nazi-fighting, adrenaline-chocked, maritime, perfect boy adventure story. Though in all honesty, this thing is researched exceptionally. In all the eras of history the protagonist finds himself in. Don’t be surprised if you’ve chewed off all your fingernails from nerves by the end.
The Time Pirate by Ted Bell: If you fell in love with Nick of Time, follow up the adventure with more pirates, the American Revolution, and good old-fashioned WWII airplane raids by our favorite Nicholas McIver. I was utterly mesmerized by all the plane details (a personal weakness on the list with snarky thief characters and gooey-good fantasy). The characters are every bit as good as in the first book, and the adrenaline-pumping action might actually be even better.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom: A true story by an incredible woman. Brace yourself, because she doesn’t leave a single detail out when it comes to her experiences. They may be too disturbing for young readers. But so much of the story is also about her life as a watchmaker, about her faith, how she eventually came to hide the Jews in her home and become part of the underground movement. About the people she met along the way who became so much like family. Even though it’s about Nazis and all the horrors and loss and death that came with it, The Hiding Place will leave you feeling that it’s okay to live on instead of with the cloud of depression so many of these sorrowful stories create.
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli: I read this one immediately before The Hiding Place. Strange to say, even though the violence is toned down for a middle-grade audience, I needed The Hiding Place to sort of cheer me up afterward. Milkweed leaves you with a lot of unresolved pain through the eyes of a little Polish boy who lived through and escaped the Holocaust after being adopted by a Jewish family. I fell in love with the poor broken little character. His irrepressible voice, his overwhelming childish ignorance. He’s the kind you want to give a hug to at every point in the story. And Milkweed also tackles the painful topic of what happens to those who survive? How can you justify living when so many others died? Intended for middle-grade or not, it’s a tragic one you’ll want to approach with caution. Probably a box of cookies and some tissues aren’t a bad idea either.
Things We Couldn’t Say by Diet Eman: Another true story by another truly incredible woman. I was pretty young when I started reading this one, so I bowed out soon after Diet entered prison. That being said, I’ll probably go back and read the rest of it someday. Diet is in her twenties when Holland is occupied, so she’s a bit more spunky and stubborn than Corrie Ten Boom. I love her for that. Corrie can get a little too perfect at times, but Diet feels human. The sweet romance with her fiancé, the stories of how she did what she did and why–I had the chance to hear her on the radio once a few years ago, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forget listening to the stories she told. She knew what it meant to be brave. What better way to honor this brave woman who passed away last year than to make sure the things she couldn’t say are never forgotten?
The Fences Between Usby Kirby Larson: A really enjoyable volume of the Dear America series that tackles the uncomfortable topic of Japanese American internment during WWII. The main character Piper is realistic and loveable (and spunky and spiteful at times), and it’s awesome to see her grow as a character as the book progresses. The story itself shows how the boundaries of hero and villain are not always as clear as propaganda might make them. Terrible and wonderful people exist in every nation and every race.
One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping by Barry Denenberg: If you’re looking for a story told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl from Austria, this might be for you. Some friends loaned me this Dear America years ago, and like MIlkweed, it’s toned down for a younger audience, but the sense of horror is still there (betrayal, strong language, suicide, be forewarned, it’s not exactly light reading). Especially if you know enough about the era to read between the lines. One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping asks the question of what would happen to a Jewish girl who looked like the ideal “Aryan perfection?” What could she do so many others couldn’t?
My Secret War by Mary Pope Osborne: This one is fascinating just because most people mistakenly hold the idea Nazi forces never set foot on U.S. soil. Yup, that’s right! Madeline Beck’s Dear America diary about German forces on Long Island is based on an actual event–and if that isn’t enough to pique your curiosity, then perhaps historical fiction isn’t the genre for you? It’s not the strongest book on the list, but the concept is mesmerizing. And it turns out Mary Pope Osborne can write some pretty good stories even if they don’t include, say, a magic tree house.
Molly: An American Girl: You know we can’t leave the spunky ten-year-old off the list in her adventures on the home front! Molly is a sweet starter read for kids just beginning to learn about WWII. Very accurate, but without the violence and horrors that come when discussing the war itself. Instead, Molly offers the perspective of a character thrown into the story without being a hero–just figuring things out, childlike and human.
So that’s my list, more or less. You’ll notice some classics like Anne Frank’s diary or Boy in Striped Pajamas didn’t make it onto my list. Simple reason for this.
I am a coward. I can only take so much before even I crack and start to cry. So I try to pick books where at least a few of the characters survive.
We all know it was a dark time in history. But I like happy endings. Believing in fairytales. I like to know that there were always some good things. Making life worth living after all.
If I left any of your favorites off the list, feel free to let me know. These are just from the sampling I’ve stumbled across in my reading. If you have a book you love, please, please about it!
Genre: YA WWII Historical Fiction (emphasis on women in the French Resistance)
Content for the Sensitive Reader: Three violent but not particularly graphic on-page deaths, amount of violence otherwise typical in WWII stories, some PG-13 and mild language scattered throughout, mild romantic themes, underage smoking and drinking.
BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10
WARNING: Review does contain spoilers!
I picked up my copy of Violins of Autumn at the last Epic Library Book Sale (which has now been cancelled for the spring…*cries*). It had a really nice cover design and promised the exciting story of a young woman spy in WWII France.
What more did I need to know? Especially when violins were in the title?
A word of warning for oft-disappointed musicians like myself:Violins of Autumn refers to the D-Day code phrase. There is not a single violin in the book.
Which is fine. Mostly fine.
What I expected was a light and cheerful middle-grade novel about a teenage girl out to save the world from doom, darkness and your typical stereotypical Nazis. Something maybe a little unrealistic and too fluffy for the reality, but good-hearted enough to make me feel better about the world.
That is not what I got. The book is firmly YA. I was startled into the realization the first time we came across language completely inappropriate for a MG novel. In retrospect, I wasn’t the only one fooled by the book jacket design. It was smeshed in with the mostly middle-grade books at the sale.
So what was I in for? A gritty YA novel holding little back about the horrors of the war? One that gave you pulse-pounding excitement in a deeply-researched setting of what it meant to be alone in occupied France as a female spy? One that challenges the distinctions of who’s on the “right side” as the definition of who you can trust is blurred and undermines some of the “Nazi-monster” propaganda of the war by making them deeply erring humans rather than slaughtering German sausages?
Violins of Autumn somehow walks the fine line between the two. And while I gladly would have read either, this middle ground just strikes me as lukewarm, poorly written, and not thoroughly researched.
I really do feel guilty saying that. The woman researched her book for seven years. I have no desire to mock someone’s tremendous effort. But frankly, there were little historical and plotting things that didn’t line up. Too much that felt like she was doing what everyone before her had done rather than creating something new.
A few examples?
Adele becomes a spy because a couple of soldiers in a London bar gave her the address. Sorry, but I’ve read too many unfortunate stories of people being jerks in bars to feel comfortable with this situation. It also feels way too easy to go wrong for the Resistance in general if all you have to do is have a funny accent in the local pub to find out where they are.
Adele is totally boy-crazy. Yeah, it’s fine. She’s an American girl who wants to have adventure and fall in love. Except she describes literally every male character she comes in contact with for longer than two minutes as if she’s ranking his value according to his appearance. Before the first chapter is over, she has three potential love interests, one of which is at least twice her age. Uncomfortable yet? As if the objectifying isn’t bad enough, she eventually emerges with two main love interests. When love interest 1 leaves, she’s passionately kissing love interest 2 in a ditch and having a conversation alone in a car that made me concerned this was going to be a very different type of YA book than I’d been prepared for. But oh, what shall we do about her apparent lovestruck situation with two boys?
Kill one of them off!
Okay, but seriously now. I have seen this plot device so many times. It drives me nuts. Let’s not have the girl make a mature, character-defining decision, let’s maker her totally subject to fate and make the choice for her!
Great! So now she’s probably going to marry love interest 2 with or without ever telling him about the passionate feelings for and behavior toward love interest 1.
BookmarkedOne: why you two-timing little…
BookmarkedOne: And now I hate you.
Okay, so maybe I didn’t hate her as much as Sinbad of the Sea in the original Arabian Nights where I was practically stuffing junk food down my gullet while he suffered shouting “Just die already!” as I read. I still wanted Adele to make it out of the war alive and have a happy life. But I wasn’t really sympathizing as she went through the trauma of war. Or anything she had difficulty with. In my mind, she was now immature and a total jerk.
You can’t build a married life with somebody who forgets your existence the first moment you’re out of the room. So, yeah. I “ship” nobody in this book. Literally nobody.
(This is exactly why I hate love triangles, writing buddy!)
The writing style isn’t particularly wonderful. The author wanders off to talk about the trees or landscape or clouds in a way that makes me glaze over every time. Everything we know about the characters could be written on a 3″ by 5″ card each. Everybody has a tragic backstory and it’s told to you in dialogue rather than shown to you in characterization. And the characters are static for the most part. Very static.
And however much the author researched the book, the things she drops in feel more like tropes than anything else. Of course Adele is in solitary confinement when she gets captured. Of course she taps the Morse code against the walls. Of course she carries a cyanide pill in her pocket. Of course they pull out her fingernails. Of course.
Yes, all these things are at least marginally accurate. But by the end of the war, Nazi prisons were packed out. You’d probably have six people to a cell and rarely be in solitary unless you were a very, very important prisoner.
Which frankly, I’m not certain Adele is. Especially if they apparently “already know” everything she has to tell.
And pulling out her fingernails? Nazis were desperate for a labor force to keep the war going at this point. It’s far more likely they’d put her to work like Corrie Ten Boom building radios in a factory or Diet Eman doing laundry for the soldiers within the prison itself. Again, this is unless Adele was an incredibly important prisoner. Is she? Does she really deserve all this attention? She calls herself a liar, and probably could have worked her way out of it if she tried. Say she was out for a hike late at night with (one of) her boyfriend(s). Then her only crime is being out after curfew. If they already know everything about Resistance operations, why bother with her? If someone hiding Jews isn’t tortured at all, why take so much care with Adele?
Gut instinct tells me for plot. It’s an incredibly dissatisfying answer.
But the thing that irritated me the most about this inaccuracy?
Adele’s charm bracelet.
Early on, we’re introduced to the fact that Adele has one prized possession, a silver bracelet from her aunt. She’s clever enough not to wear something that valuable in public. Carries it in her pocket.
Including when she gets captured.
Clever girl, right? Hides it in the seam of her wool trousers. And escapes prison with it when her faithful friends raid a highly-guarded prison just to rescue her.
Okay, enough! This is ridiculous! Are we serious right now???
Problem 1: McAuley honestly describes the full-body search done at all prisons. What she tries to do is tame the situation somewhat by making the search overseen by other women. Afraid that’s not the case in reality. Men oversaw the search, and it wasn’t just once, it was often. Another form of psychological torture. There’s very little opportunity for smuggling, although, admittedly, it can be done.
Problem 2: Adele keeps her own clothes–not a prison uniform! And with them, the charm bracelet. She should have been given a uniform instantly after the search, wool trousers and charm bracelet gone forever.
Problem 3: It’s a charm bracelet! Why does nobody hear it jingling?
Problem 4: Adele happens to get the one “nice matron” in the entire prison. Apparently continuing her streak of ridiculous luck. None of the female guards in the story are nearly as scary as actual prisoners described them.
Problem 5: Adele’s buddies break her out of prison in broad daylight and get away with just her. That’s just not logical. The entire prison is full of people probably going to die after a little more torture, and they only care about her. Who in the Resistance is not only that selfish, but that wasteful? You broke in already, make use of your opening! Take everybody with you!
Problem 6: She’s still wearing the wool pants with the bracelet! Despite describing the temperature of the prison and apparently exchanging them for lighter attire!
Problem 7: They go back to Adele’s safe house in the middle of Paris as if everyone suddenly isn’t looking for her.
Problem 8: (my personal favorite) Denise buys her new charms for the bracelet at the end of the story. Her silver bracelet. As France is still trying to get rid of all the occupying soldiers. Black market or not, let’s be serious. Where are you getting custom silver charms, Denise? Where?
It’s as if at the end of the story, McAuley just threw her research aside for the sake of this bracelet illustration.
I don’t really find fault with the author for this. Historical fiction is super hard to write. They’re just little slip-ups, like asking for black coffee in occupied France, to borrow her own illustration. Things that make the careful reader realize this isn’t all it seems to be. If she’d had winning characters, a dazzling plot, and high-stakes adventure (or even one of the three), it could probably be overlooked.
As it is, the book drags. It feels as if the author herself couldn’t decide what sort of story she wanted to write and it just winds up being full of clichés. Another case, perhaps, of the lie of “write what you know.” She knows her material so well, none of it seems exciting or important enough to draw attention to. It’s just a passing thing.
Sorry. It’s true.
Yeah. Violins of Autumn. It’s fine. Nothing particularly objectionable. Just not for me.
So next week I’m probably going to be writing a blog post about all the WWII books I’ve come across and could actually enthusiastically recommend.
Umm…playing “Meditation” on my violin inside a castle chapel/great hall and listening to the fantastic acoustics as my music reached the painted clouds?
Serious, I wasn’t just daydreaming when I was reading. It was real.
The castle is called Chateau Charmant, and it’s smack in the middle of a patch of woods in the Midwest. Exactly the place for a castle, really. Up on a hill with a fantastic view from the catwalk.
And that echoing chapel…
If I’m honest, I find it a little amazing I happened to be there myself. The short answer is simple enough–the mercenary historical fighters I went to the nerd con with were going and invited me along, in hopes of finding a good Renaissance faire location.
But that doesn’t really sound like a simple answer, does it? To someone outside the loop, it probably sounded like absolute gibberish.
To simplify it still?
I followed the bumpy gravel road through the woods, past the gate with the lions, over the bridge and up the hill, and found the castle.
And when I asked very nicely, the owners of the castle let me take out my violin and play.
This is why I don’t think it sounds real, even to me. Even if I do have half a dozen swordsmen ready to vouch for it.
Even if it was just for today, I’ve got to admit, sometimes it really feels like there is fairy magic in the world after all.
It’s strange what things will set off my mind down a different path.
Four days ago, it was a single photograph of a Neolithic sculpture depicting a conquering warrior. In a dry history text, no less.
It wasn’t as if I’d traveled halfway across the world to look at the original stone, thinking about the fingers that had etched it so long before mine were ever formed.
No. I was sitting in my bedroom, barefoot, toying with a ballpoint pen looking at a mass-distributed history text.
But I kept staring at the photo, perfectly fixed, not really seeing it anymore. And the words just suddenly started burbling up, crowding my thoughts until I grabbed my “will-write-these-in-full-eventually-ideas” notebook and started scribbling away, disregarding the other things I needed to be doing.
My “life” can wait, I’ve discovered. Stories do not.
Yes, I thought. This is what I want. I’ve never written something quite about this before. Conquering warlords…in high epic narrative style…
And it’s odd what things attach to a story once it emerges. First I had warriors in early civilizations…then it was some random fact I’d picked up about the Achilles tendon and how it enables you to walk…then it was Norse mythology…then giant birds and giraffes…a desert…willow trees…
It isn’t particularly unusual for me to blur the distinctions of what belongs in a story and what doesn’t at this point. Instead of beautiful, lofty, pure epic narratives, I tend to serve up creations stitched together of whatever scraps were left unattended.
One of my recent stories started out as fantasy, got robots, then Italian masks, Japanese marriage gift traditions, the abandoned Capsule Tower in Japan, superheroes, some type of exceptionally strong metal I can’t remember the real name for now, a little bit of flair nicked from Assassin’s Creed images, and oh yeah, an abandoned roller coaster.
Because I wanted to write a roller coaster in the middle of a fantasy story.
It was weird. Believe it or not, the story I wrote after that might have gotten even weirder.
It’s funny how when I try to write, I get disgruntled occasionally because I’m trying too hard. But if life gets crazy busy and I know I have other things I should do…there it is! Right at the most inopportune moment, demanding my full attention.
Love ya, characters.
I think it will be good to write this story. Sometimes I get bogged down in the traditional forest-y Robin Hood-type fantasy setting, and I think I know what I’m doing, so I stop smelling the wild roses or looking up at the patches of sky between the trees. I love it, but I think I know it when I don’t.
I remember seeing images of extensive caverns, and thinking about a cave in one of my forest-y fantasy stories, thinking “Why didn’t I describe that? Why didn’t I go exploring?”
So even though woodsy fantasy settings are my absolute favorite…it’s probably good for me to take a break once in a while. See something different and remember that writing is often about breaking the rules.
Including my own.
So we’ll see where this goes. It might just wind up being Unfinished Short Story #3 Currently in Review. Or it might be my next Writers of the Future entry. I never know what turns the next roller coaster of a story takes me on until the wind is whipping my hair from my face and I’m screaming my breath away.
Or banging my head against my keyboard because my characters are off on adventure and I’m stuck at home, wondering what they’re up to.