LiterEature 101: Gideon the Cutpurse

Our Third Session of Litereature 101 commences with a brief discussion on Gideon, The Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer.

As mentioned in the previous session, I continue to explore Young Adult literature in an effort to familiarize myself with the themes, styles, and goals of the genre, to see from whence it came and to where it is heading.  I admit wholeheartedly that I also just find it to be more fun as well—where fantasy, science fiction and generous doses of unreality are implemented to explore human psyche, emotions, social issues etc., much like adult fiction.  So I wandered through the library in search of my next prey when my eyes settled on one of the most engaging covers I had seen in a long long while:

Thus I went against that age-old adage and indeed judged the book by its cover, in the best way possible.  A quick perusal of the summary revealed a relatively new story (2006) that is part historical fiction, part coming of age, and of course part science fiction—there is time-travel after all.  The summary describes it as a “modern genre all its own,” so I wondered how unique it really could be…Observations:

Well behaved if a little spoiled young boy with absent parents.  Young country girl with enormous exposure and curiosity for all knowledge (scientist father) and the ideal tight-knit family.  A mishap in a national science laboratory with an anti-gravity machine.  The year 1763.  Such are the introductory ingredients to this children’s epic through time and history, landing two kids in the past, where they befriend a cutpurse-and-gentleman by the name of Gideon Seymour, whose unsavory past has led him to flee the grips of his previous “employer” and the goon sent to capture him, the Tar Man.  There, I thought I’d give you a tiny summation of the plot so you aren’t entirely lost.

One cannot help but be impressed by the great detail and nuances that the author reveals about the year 1763: the smells, the language, terminology, the food (not so pleasant for two modern-day kids).  More than that, she has done remarkable research in portraying what servitude and social class really meant to these people—how being in debt to someone for your life can honestly bind you financially, emotionally, morally, and even legally.  Great effort goes into the painful histories of each character—unjust hangings gone wrong, starvation-driven theft, families eradicated by disease.  And yet this is a YA book, so despite the minute details of the sordid reasoning behind the nickname “Tar Man” and the fear that should instill (and probably does in young readers), it is clearly not as graphic nor as engrossing as such storylines could be in an adult fiction novel.

However, that doesn’t make them any less moving—in fact, it helps the reader focus on more important facets rather than get lost in their own misery and sympathy for these characters.  It isn’t a historical novel alone, but rather a tale about the two kids lost in time.  The girl, Kate Dyer, tries to reign in her absurdly large encyclopedia of information when facing the likes of Erasmus Darwin or Samuel Johnson, all the while battling with the raging emotions of a pre-teen girl.  The love between her and her family and the outright devotion of her father are unmistakable visions of what a strong relationship is.  They are the foundation of stability (ironic since time is decidedly unstable what with all the worm-hole travelling these folks do) that the rest of the characters are lacking.  Is it a coincidence that she is the only primary female character, and thus her more mature nature would naturally suppose a healthier family bond?  Did the author, also a female, do that on purpose or was it purely a result of the novel?  Since this is part one of a trilogy, I would like to read the next two before developing that theory further.

But since she is more stable in that regard, it makes sense that the story is more about the development of Peter Schock, who truly battles a tug-o-war between wanting to stay in this dirty, smelly, adventurous land, or returning home to parents he misses profoundly but whose faces he can hardly recall. Herein lies the heart of the story, and our own beat harder at that pivotal moment when Peter yells at his dad that he hates him; we know without wanting to that those will be the last words between them for quite some time.  Peter struggles with wanting to believe his parents care and want him back as fiercely as Kate believes in hers.  And yet, he bonds so tightly with Gideon, who treats him like his own son that Peter can’t bear to let him go either.  Nebulous territory indeed.

It raises the issue of child-parent dynamics in the 21th century, juxtaposing them directly with those of the 18th century.  We also see the struggles that the parents go through, and the whole range of problems going on in current time because of their disappearance.  We of course know that Peter’s parents would do anything to get him back—but that knowledge is useless to a boy lost and unaware.

The other important element of this story is how it is told: we have two narrators, one being the journal of Gideon discussing events, and the other an unknown player who I can only imagine will be revealed at the ultimate finale.  It’s a curious, though not unique, interlacing of tales—giving us a chance to feel what Gideon feels although living primarily through the kids’ experiences.  My guess?  There are a few NASA scientists visiting England to figure out what’s happening—I’m betting it’s the woman, Dr. Pirretti.  But who knows…

Review: Very creative, and I want to complete the series earnestly.  The most salient points in my eyes:

1.       Reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels at times, with regard to the horror in which the kids discovered what life was like—unhygienic, mostly disgusting food, filth all around, cumbersome clothing.  But while GT was more an examination of the baseness of human beings, this was more an exposition of gratitude towards the far-reaching accomplishments and capabilities of science and exploration, of knowledge in all its highest roles.  In fact, what with the many discussions of time travel, theories of worm holes and anti-matter, alternate realities and parallel universes combined with the well-packed bits of information about historical figures and their great affects on our society, this novel is truly a love letter to science.

2.      However, it also is a warning as well, an admonition towards trying too hard to play God, as it were, and having too much power.  Whether it is as a thief-taker controlling the justice system, an oddly-moralistic thug travelling forward in time, or a group of scientists with the capability to change history to their liking, the author is criticizing the attempts made by mankind to gain too much power than they can or should handle.

3.      Despite it being set in England and written by a British author, it felt as if an American were writing and trying to pass it off as a British novel.  Only at times, and mostly with the behavior and language of the children, who to me seemed a lot more American than anything else.  But perhaps that just goes to show that this generation of petulant kids are all the same, no matter the locale. Haha.

The Food: You would think that the amount of food that was described in the novel would give me ample inspiration for what the replicate or conjure up.  But with the horrid experiences they had with calf’s head pie, stewed carp, or weevil-infested anything, I was remiss to want to try anything. However, upon reflection, and a hidden gem in the novel I thought it would be quite nice to try to recreate something of 18th century fare, with my own twist.

  • Handy Meat Pies: There was so much talk of beef pies, meat pies, this pie, that pie, that I felt compelled to try something out. However, I don’t actually eat much beef, nor did I want a big meaty dish encased in crust—I’m always unsure what the husband will eat when it comes to more adventurous things, and I couldn’t possibly finish the entire thing myself.  So I made handy turkey meat pies, like hotpockets I suppose, only tastier.  The dough was just flour, egg, butter, and water—make sure you roll it out nice and thin if you endeavor to make that yourself.  The filing consisted of potatoes, ground turkey, onions, tomatoes, coriander, rosemary and oregano primarily, with some garlic and lots of spice. Quite simple, cooking the filling first, then wrapping it in the dough and either baking or deep frying (I baked, obviously, at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes).
  • A dessert! The Lemon-pineapple Syllabub: Evidently these were quite popular in the 18th century, and I wonder actually why they fell off the radar, being that it is a ridiculously simple recipe.  But as I do not imbibe alcohol and it calls for white wine, I added pineapple instead.  Essentially it is a whipped cream dessert, with sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and wine.  I decided to puree pineapples and layer that on the bottom, topping it with the lemon whipped cream and a sprig of mint for contrast and freshness.

I’m quite looking forward to reading the next two novels, and I would highly recommend this to you all.


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