Sunday, March 16, 2014

Every now and then comes a Trumpet Blast worth Reckoning!

I do not generally review books on my blog.  Usually my in-depth reviews appear on The Review and my casual ones on Amazon and Goodreads.  But this is a book that is underselling its potential because its subject is John Knox. But fear not, potential reader. This is not a tale of Fire and Brimstone. It is more likely to leave you with a wry grin forming than in desperate need of salvation.  And do not be put off with the liberal use of Scottish dialect.  You might learn a phrase or two to use when you stub your toe in the presence of your wee ones.

A novel by Marie MacPherson
    A review by Linda Root

The  prevailing  view of John Knox is of a towering,  bearded and overbearing personification of the term ‘Fire and Brimstone’ -- an image that both  his disciples and his critics sought to create.In The First Blast of the Trumpet, author Marie MacPherson treats us to a different view.What makes her offering unique is that she does it in a way that is both witty and entertaining.  For those who think that a story centered on Knox  will of necessity lack romance,  intrigue, tongue-in-cheek wit and ribald humor, MacPherson’s book  will be a revelation.
19th century engraving by John Burnet from painting by Sir William Allan, \

I did not embark upon my review of First Blast of the Trumpet expecting to have fun.  Being a fellow member of the community of historical novelists drawn to the life and times of Marie Stuart’s Scotland, I was no stranger to the author’s wit or her writing style, so I should have been forewarned. My first surprise was discovering  that MacPherson’s first book  in the Knox trilogy is not a novelized biography of the early life of John Knox. It is a feasible if fictional tale of the politics and persons who produced him, especially the Sixteenth Century persons  MacPherson cleverly nominated to serve as his parents. She takes full advantage of the fact that the details of the Reformer’s origin remain vague  and picks a pair of actual characters whose histories would have made them compatible. If  Knox was not their son, he  certainly could have been.

Thus, this  is not  a story about young  Knox,  although he is central to the theme. It is more the  tale of Elizabeth Hepburn,  a sixteenth century Scottish woman  who becomes  a female monastic by accident, not design, and who manages to survive a long list of mishaps with little  help from anyone but herself and a cluster of amazing  women who stand beside her. The plot emphasizes how little control most Reformation era women and many men had over their fates. Through the eyes of  MacPherson’s characters, we acquire insight into the  non-religious circumstances that brought so many men and even more women kicking and screaming into the monastic life. The same holds true of the political considerations that drove ambitious men  into the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  

In First Blast, David Beaton is an excellent example and he  makes an outstanding and almost sympathetic villain. After all, he too is a victim of the times. While there are exceptions, generally, the men other than martyr  Wishart  do not come out looking quite as heroic as the women in MacPherson’s book.
Cardinal David Beaton from  17th century engraving by S. Freeman,

Many readers will be surprised to find very little about Knox in the first half of the book. Instead we are  treated to an excursion into pre-Reformation Scotland, getting an ample lesson in the need for clerical reform as we are introduced to the parade of mistresses and bastard children of the leading clerics of the day. This is pure, accurate and compelling Scottish historical fiction spiced with irony, wit and just enough comedy to make us wonder why we expected this to be a somber read. Even the minor characters  advance the story insofar as they reveal not just who Knox was, but in the artful way they demonstrate why Knox wasOne of my favorite scenes illustrates  the rivalry between the king’s favorite mistress Margaret Erskine and Cardinal Beaton’s mistress and mother of his many children Marion Ogilvy. It is much more fun to explore the ecclesiastical excesses of the Sixteenth  Century Catholic Church by looking into Mistress Marion’s mind and life situation than it would be to sit through one of Knox’s sermons on the topic. Also, the cultural color introduced in the pages is not limited to personalities. The rituals and celebrations of the Stewart court enliven the story with little resort to narrative. We see that not all of Sixteenth Century Scotland was somber. There were robust good times offered to those who knew where to look and how to earn a ticket.
The martyrdom of George Wishart, Knox's mentor {{PD-Art}}

 It is also surprising to find a book  with such an auspicious title with such a  generous  helping of romance. Trysts  are not limited to just those between the protagonist and her sometimes lover, who MacPherson writes in and out of the story artfully and with a bit more empathy that he perhaps deserves. Even Cardinal Beaton’s lovelife is explored with a tad more tolerance than his assassins thought to be his due.  MacPherson  presents the romantic entanglements of the protagonist in a light that makes the reader crave a romance novel’s satisfactory  ending while knowing that in the climate of Early  Reformation Scotland, it is unlikely to happen. Overall, it is surprising just how entertaining a well researched historical novel can be. Even though the story involves a historical person many of us see  as a stiff-necked disciplinarian with a propensity for serving up large portions of hell  and damnation in long-winded sermons,  it is hard to finish the last page without glimpsing a very human side to John Knox.

If there is a single  feature that some readers may find troublesome in the early  pages, it is the liberal use of Scottish slang and vernacular speech in especially in the early pages. For those unfamiliar with Scots, after the first two chapters, the Scots will no longer be distracting and will add authenticity and color to the reading adventure. One might even pick up a phrase or two from the character  Betsy.

It is settled fact that the historical Knox had the ability to fill a kirk to overflowing. This  fine book deserves the same large audience. It is brim full of love and hate, bravery and cowardice, hope and disillusionment  and  a large helping of  intrigue.  The visual imagery is superb, from the tender though sparse love scenes between the abbess and her lover to the account of  Knox’s mentor Wishart’s martyrdom or  the descriptive fate of Cardinal David Beaton’s pickled corpse. I take heart that this is part one of a trilogy. There is a Reformation on the horizon and I expect Marie MacPherson to  present it  with the integrity of a historian  and the lusty wit of a balladeer.  

A note:

You can find this book in the US and Kindle editions on Amazon.  I would provide a link but then, the Amazon police would accuse me of being a promoter instead of a voracious reader who knows an exception book when she finds it. I do know Marie MacPherson as a fellow member of the Marie Stuart Society with an educational background in the history of the Scottish Reformation. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for such a thorough review, Linda. There are so many myths about Knox - & I'm trying to steer a path between those who hero-worship him & those who debunk him as a bigot & misogynist. For behind all the myths there is an interesting story of a complicated man.