Author Karen Cushman is no stranger to the medieval and Renaissance world. Her first novel, the Newbery Honor book Catherine Called Birdy (1994), examined the period from the perspective of a noble-born girl waiting to be married off, who feels frustrated by her limited role in society. Though Cushman’s latest work, Will Sparrow’s Road (November 2012; Gr 5-8, both Clarion), is set during 16th-century England, its title character lives a life that Birdy could only “[fantasize] about as she sat inside embroidering.” Bold and impetuous, Will Sparrow does whatever he must to survive. After being sold to an innkeeper by his father, the boy narrowly escapes a fate as a chimney sweep. Later, he stumbles upon a fairground where he works for a charlatan and a magician before joining up with a traveling sideshow of oddities that features a dwarf, the preserved body of a mermaid, and—strangest of all—Grace Wyse, a girl whose hirsute countenance resembles that of a cat. In this story of a young boy’s journey, Cushman immerses fans of historical fiction in the vibrant, stimulating world of the Renaissance fair.
You’ve written several books set during Medieval and Renaissance England. What compels you to return to this setting so often?
My fascination with this time period has been around for years. I started long ago with Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff and progressed through medieval music and fairs, and collecting things like the 15th-century illuminated manuscript page that hangs on my wall. My father’s family is Polish, my mother’s German and Irish, so the English were certainly never heroes to either side of the family. But somehow England, the England of long ago, spoke to me.
Renaissance fairs, as recreated these days, are tremendous fun, with their period costumes, flowery “Milady”-laden language, drinking mugs, and roasted turkey legs. These events, alive with music and dance, archers and knights on horseback, are based on the traditional ones of medieval and Renaissance England, equally colorful, raucous, and outrageous. I thought it might be an interesting setting for a book.
Then while researching broadsides and ballads for Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Clarion, 2010), I discovered an odd but popular genre of broadsides—those illustrating birth defects, or, to use the language of the time, monstrous births, both human and animal. Such anomalies were often displayed at these spectacles and, presto, the two ideas came together as Will Sparrow joins a troupe of “oddities and prodigies” traveling from fair to fair in Elizabethan England.
In your author’s note, you mention that though you ordinarily write female characters, a girl would not have survived long on her own during this period. Was it a challenge to create a male protagonist?
I think the times were still brutal enough that a girl traveling alone would have been in grave danger. And in a world with so little privacy, I do not believe she could effectively disguise herself as a boy. So Will Sparrow was born. It was indeed a challenge to try and get inside the skin of a boy. In my first attempts I fear Will was more like a girl who wore pants and spat. It took a lot of observation and research before I could come up with what I hope is a not a stereotype but a realistic boy.
How much did gender shape the story? Will Sparrow’s Road has a very animated, lively tone, whereas Catherine Called Birdy evidences a more cloistered feel.
I’m not surprised that Catherine Called Birdy has a more cloistered feel. The lives of young women in medieval England were much more circumscribed and rigid than the life a young male would enjoy. It was important to me to build a world for both Birdy and Will that was honest and believable, true to their character, their gender, and the times.
Over the course of the novel, Will is sold to an innkeeper by his father, makes theft a regular habit, and often goes hungry. Is it freeing to write historical fiction, where you can place your young protagonists in far more dangerous situations than in books set during the present?
I fear some children today face situations just as dangerous as those of the past. What historical fiction does free me to do is to write about children alone, on their own, with no one responsible for them. There were no orphan homes or social workers or Child Protective Services. The options for a homeless child were dismal. Writing about children of long ago allowed me to explore the idea of being entirely on one’s own. I think young readers (and many of us older folks) are intrigued by the idea of who we are as individuals separate from our families, from our homes, from any adult help. What would we do if left to our own devices? How would we survive? Would we be whiny victims or resourceful and courageous? Would we be the same people we are now or would we grow to be different? What kind of family might we create for ourselves?
Will initially views Grace Wyse, the girl with the “face of a cat,” as monstrous but comes to realize that she is fully human. Would someone of the period be able to look beyond Grace’s appearance?
Grace Wyse was inspired by the portrait of Antonietta Gonzales on the cover of The Marvelous Hairy Girls (Yale University Press, 2009) by Merry Wiesner-Hanks. Antonietta, her father, and most of her brothers and sisters suffered from hypertrichosis, an extremely rare genetic condition that made them unusually hairy. There have been 50 documented cases worldwide since the 16th century. The Gonzales family is probably the most famous because of the number of paintings, books, and medical case histories that feature them. Unlike most people marked with such irregularities, the family was not shunned or mocked; dressed in ruffs and elaborate jewel-trimmed gowns, they were welcome visitors in the courts of Europe, though sometimes treated more like pets than people.
Most “oddities and prodigies” would have had a much more difficult existence than the Gonzales family. Few people were accepting of those who were different, who were often considered cursed, marked by the devil, or punished by God. Even physical disabilities called for abuse as Meggy Swann with her crooked legs learned. Will Sparrow was fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time with Grace and so get to know the person behind her extraordinary appearance.
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