One of the few double-Newbery winning authors, Konigsburg died this past April. According to The New York Times obituary, her main competition for her first Newbery (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) was her own book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. Note, her first novel lost out to her second novel.
Sorry, but this post (cribbed from my other blog) isn’t about either of those books. They’re good — actually, they’re excellent — but this one’s even better.
Despite this book’s narration from heaven, I can’t classify it as a fantasy novel. It is most definitely grounded in Europe of the Middle Ages (the 12th century, to be specific), and is a wonderful introduction to that era.
The basic outline is this: Eleanor of Aquitaine, her mother-in-law, her abbot, and one of Henry II’s knights are waiting in heaven (Up) for word about whether Henry will be released from Purgatory (Below). Because of Henry’s many sins, he’s been there for centuries, and Eleanor is growing impatient to see him. (Impatience in heaven! Makes it seem a bit more like the world we know on earth.)
As the four wait, they entertain each other with stories from Eleanor’s and Henry’s lives, structuring a tale that provides enough political, religious, and social complexity to satisfy almost any young historian.
The Middle Ages have been the setting for several YA novels, many of which have won Newberys. My own fascination with that era of European history lies in its utterly different world at the outer edges of modernity.
Whether wealthy or poor, noble or peasant, male or female, these people are enough like me to be recognizable, but live in circumstances so unfamiliar as to be fascinating. Eleanor is stubborn, clever, beautiful, and reckless enough to leave one King (Louis of France) for another (Henry of England). That cost her a few decades Below.
Konigsburg gives us four wonderful voices here. Matilda, the mother-in-law may be my favorite: candid, disapproving, strong, without regrets. But all tell a thrilling story of love, deception, and battles for land and power. And don’t forget that Henry and Eleanor’s children included Richard (the Lion-hearted), and John (of Magna Carta fame). We hear a mother’s view of her sons’ accomplishments at the end of this wonderful tale.
I promise to write something about Konigsburg’s two Newbery winning novels, From the Mixed-Up Files … (1968) and The View from Saturday (1997) in the near future.