What sets Cynthia Harnett apart as an historical writer is her incredible research, attention to detail, and ability to paint the everyday happenings of her characters so naturally, that the story is not burdened or stilted with information, all the while serving us a rich slice of historical life.
Although the wheels begin to turn in the events leading to the war of the roses, they are not the primary focus of this book. They serve as a backdrop to the life of a young boy, who, like young boys in all times and places, is faced with some very perplexing difficulties. In particular, Stephen is confounded in his is need to discern between good and evil. How do you tell if a person is good or evil? One sage adult in the story recommends that he, “judge them by their fruit”.
Stephen has inadvertently found himself amongst political plotters. But the old lady, Meg, at whose house he stumbled into this difficulty, has always been kind and gentle, generous and caring to the boy who lost his mother years before. Is she guilty of conspiring against the king? To add to his difficulties, she claims to see future events in a pool of water outside her hut. The villagers consider she is a witch, and Stephen could lose his place as a student, and possibly be put to death himself, for consorting with her. At the point of crisis, should he warn her of danger, or hand her over as a traitor, as is demanded of him?
This story is absorbing, and one of her more suspenseful works, but leaves the true question of the book unanswered. How does a person discern if another is good or evil? While we are left with that thought provoking question, Harnett does, kindly, tell us which events and characters in the story are true at the end of the story.
I would recommend this book, for younger children, only as a read aloud due to the issues raised. For the older child, it raises important issues of faith, loyalty, and discernment, for family discussion.