Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Merchant's Daughter by Melanie Dickerson

Over a year ago, I was thrilled to read and review The Healer's Apprentice by what I found to be an essential voice for the Christian teen market. I will be the first to say that the Christian market is decidedly lacking in strong fiction for teenagers; but Dickerson is changing that and she is a welcome voice. Like The Healer's Apprentice and its soft re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty tale, The Merchant's Daughter re-positions the Beauty and the Beast story in feudal England. The titular merchant's daughter, Annabel, becomes conscripted servant to Lord Ranulf le Wyse,  a harsh, enigmatic master to whom she is indentured to serve to pay a family debt. 

Ranulf le Wyse is a very Byronic figure who immediately put me in mind of Edward Rochester.  Due to an accident years earlier, his hand is disfigured, his face blighted with a scar and his blinded eye hidden behind a patch. Ranulf is the beast figure in the story: a worthy and brash counterpart to the beautifully-spirited Annabel.

This is a delicious love story; but not only because it believably metes out the growing attraction between the lord of the manor and his fair servant. Dickerson does well at infusing the novel with the Christianity which would have been prevalent to residents of this era and sphere. For example, the Holy Writ is available only through the Latin Vulgate. The denomination is completely Catholic and women are scorned for reading: especiall scripture. Annabel, having been once a wealthy merchant's daughter speaks and reads numerous languages and, as part of her servitude to Lord le Wyse, reads daily to him from his own treasured copy of the Bible. 

Often characterized in several of the re-tellings of this tale, is the role of an enchantress or seductress who serves at the initial fall of the Beast figure. Here, we learn that Ranulf is a widower once seduced by the beauty of one who did not love him; rather his station and monetary value.  To further emphasize the temptress motif, Dickerson does well at reminding the reader of the garish view of women during these primitive times.  Women, as preached by the priest at the pulpit, were seen to be the fall of man, seen to be deceptive forces, even more so if blessed with the beauty of one such as Annabel. Ranulf muses: "Beautiful women weren't to be trusted or allowed into a man's heart when that man was less than perfect. He'd learned that lesson well." At one point the priest explains how dangerous reading is to a woman: "I am not sure your motives are pure. A woman reading the Word of God? Are you able to interpret the Scriptures? You aren't even dedicated to God. Never said your vows. Nay. You are to rely upon your priest to give you the interpretation  of God's Word. I will tell you what you need to know."  As you can see, Annabel is victim of a patriarchal word where men were not only to be the studious conveyers of the scripture, they were in charge of interpreting it for women and the common public.  This is years before Luther and years before the veil was torn to allow for a public personification of the Holy Word. Annabel's desire to draw closer to the faith that has been represented to her in her minimal encounters with the Bible is often thwarted by the separation marring her to her position and her sex. 

Indeed, the greatest beauty found in the story is the pure-hearted nature of Annabel and it is this, rather than the physical grace of her movement and countenance that ultimately wins the hand of the Lord. Their relationship becomes further secured when they share the Holy Word together: Annabel thirsty to learn more about Christ in writing (so much so that she considers entering a nunnery just to be near it).

The research in this writing is wonderful and you really do feel like you peel back centuries to step into Annabel and Lord Le Wyse's time. I also found the descriptive writing and imagery to be a beautifully-woven tapestry; an apt canvas for Dickerson's renewal of a fairy tale.... like this sentence: "...she once again caught sight of the sky, which had bruised blue and purple with clouds and threatened rain"  or "...his shoulders swayed, like a hewn tree just before it collapses."

The faith in this book is well met with the time period, as mentioned. But, is rather inspiring as well. "How wonderful to know that Jesus didn't condemn women like the priest did. Even with a sinful woman, He didn't rant about how evil she was."  Nearing the end of the novel, Ranulf and Annabel discuss my favourite portion of the Bible, found in Romans 8:1 and the the theme of condemnation and Christ's atoning grace intercepts again.

For those who are familiar with the Disneyfied portrayal of the story: there is a rose, there is the sacrifice of Ranulf to put his love for Annabel before his own desire to keep her.... it goes on and on in a colourful carousel and the pages will rapidly slip between your fingers.

I found this to be even stronger than The Healer's Apprentice and I cannot WAIT until Dickerson's next tale.

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