I was talking to an old friend about books, and she asked, do you think your favorites from childhood would still hold up if you reread them? I thought about one of my favorite books of all time, and suddenly I was dying to know.
I don’t know how old I was when I picked up Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Sherwood Ring. Probably middle school (I found it in the library in the children’s section, though the heroine is 17.) I do remember the title, because I’ve always been a huge Robin Hood fan and I assumed it would be about Robin and his merry men—it isn’t.
For starters, it’s not set in a medieval forest in England, its set in a house in Upstate New York. And not just any house, an American Revolutionary War-era house, Rest-and-be-Thankful, that has been kept in pristine condition by the heroine’s uncle. When Peggy Grahame’s father dies unexpectedly, she’s sent to live with her eccentric Uncle Enos, a man who seems obsessed with the past.
Peggy quickly discovers the past isn’t nearly as distant at Rest-and-be-Thankful, as her Uncle imagines. She’s visited by four ghosts: Richard Grahame, a Revolutionary War officer; Eleanor Shipley a mischievous girl from the neighboring farm; Richard’s resourceful sister, Barbara; and a British officer, Peaceable Drummond Sherwood—who, in contrast to his name, is anything but peaceable. . . .
The ghosts relate how their lives became entwined when Richard is sent by General Washington to capture the elusive Peaceable who, along with a secret band of Tories, has who has been leading daring raids against Continental Army supply trains. When he’s stationed at the Shipley farm, home of a copper-haired vixen who made his childhood miserable, Richard quickly discovers that finding Peaceable isn’t his only challenge,
Just as I remember, the book is witty, fast-paced and full of the most wonderful character descriptions; Barbara’s and Dicks’ difficult Aunt Susanna is described as “an old tyrant suffering from twenty-seven different diseases, of which twenty-five were imaginary and the other two were entirely brought on by fretfulness and self-indulgence.” The book is full of spies, secret codes, chases, fights, escapes, a particularly memorable scene involving a set of wine glasses laced with sleeping potion, and three incredibly romantic falling-in-love stories.
Because Peggy, much like Eleanor and Barbara, is not some frail fluttering female along for the ride. She, too, embarks on an adventure involving a mysterious young scholar from England and a trail of stolen historical documents that seem to lead straight to her uncle Enos. Looking back, part of the appeal of this book then, and now, is how clever and resourceful the heroines are (a rare thing to find in the '70s). At the risk of giving too much away, it’s Barbara, not Richard, who captures the notorious Peaceable—though she pays a high price for her victory.
As I mentioned, another part of the appeal was and still is the clever dialogue and immensely appealing characters. Here’s Barbara’s first introduction to Peaceable, “Then very slowly and deliberately, he removed his cloak, came back across the room with the firelight making one glorious blaze of his scarlet and gold, and stood gazing down at me in silence, a quizzical, faintly amused glint in his sleepy eyes, as if he were waiting for me to shriek, or cower, or swoon away, like a well-bred girl with the instincts of a lady. Unfortunately, as Aunt Susanna often remarked, “I entirely lacked the instincts of a lady. . . .”
Indeed, looking back I was so taken by Barbara and Peaceable, I found I’d forgotten about the other characters’ relationships—a lapse that was quickly corrected when I devoured the book in an evening (it’s only 262 pages.) I was amazed at how vividly I remembered many of the scenes—a credit to the power of the author’s prose. But I was amazed, too, at how much I still enjoyed the story, a credit to how Elizabeth Pope is able to weave three separate story lines, two set in the past, one in the present, so that they come together in one utterly satisfying and surprising ending.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.