Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: Whence Came a Prince

Merry Christmas, Gentle Readers! 

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Whence Came a Prince

Or you could buy the four-book series where this book is volume three, photograph showing volume four: 

Author: Liz Curtis Higgs

Author's web page (Wordpress, unfortunately):

Date: 2005

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 1-57856-128-0

Length: 537 pages of text plus notes, glossary, and discussion questions

Quote: “If you find even a single coin of your gold in our possession, I will run my sword through the heart of the one who stole it.”

Having recast many Bible stories as contemporary short stories, Liz Curtis Higgs was invited to try historical novels: the legal loopholes that allowed greedy Laban to marry both of his daughters to the same man at the same time would also have been just within the bounds of possibility in eighteenth-century Scotland. Hence the series that began with Thorn in My Heart, in which the one thing that nags at the reader’s suspension of disbelief is that Jamie McKie and his wives (and first cousins) Rose and Leana are reenacting the Bible story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and, though members in good standing of the Church of Scotland, none of them notices.

Thorn in My Heart was about Leana’s falling in love with her cousin. Fair Is the Rose was about Rose’s falling in love with the same boy. Whence Came a Prince is mostly Jamie’s story, about separating himself from his money-grubbing uncle Lachlan and going home to inherit his father’s estate, becoming a man and a father and a Scottish “laird.”

In the Bible Jacob, Leah, and Rachel lived in their bigamous and incestuous relationship for most of twenty years; Jacob worked seven years to earn each sister’s dowry and a few more years for shares of the profits. During this time each sister, trying to produce more babies and thus qualify for a bigger share of the family’s wealth, also ordered a trusted maidservant to make a few babies with Jacob, which babies were “born on the knees” of the rightful wife and recognized as adopted children of hers. At least twelve healthy babies were born—eleven sons and a daughter—and some speculate that these four women may have produced other children, as well, whose names were not recorded because they weren’t heirs. Only at the end of this time did the family move, with poor baby-craving Rachel dying in childbirth, giving birth to the twelfth and last (documented) son, along the way.

In some languages time is counted not by full years but by seasons. In the other books of the Bible time is clearly counted in full years. In Genesis, however, people seem to age at exactly twice the normal rate. Some scholars, considering the ages at which Abraham and his descendants do various things in Genesis, speculate that the word later used to mean years once meant seasons, of which there were typically two in a year. It’s pertinent to mention this because, if the word used to measure age is translated “years” as it is in most English Bibles, Jacob had no relationships with women prior to those two decades of frenetic baby-breeding, and those four young ladies were fighting over his attention, when he was between the ages of seventy and ninety. (And he and Leah lived many years after that.)

The Bible suggests that Jacob was considered to have matured slowly because he was a bit of a “Mama’s boy.” That was why his father preferred his brother Esau, who was history’s first recorded “redneck,” with red hair all over, a hasty temper, little sense of responsibility, no thought of the future, little spiritual intelligence and apparently no outstanding quantity of practical intelligence, but at least Esau was bold and tough. Old Isaac, a gentle man, relished Esau’s hunting adventures as much as he did the game Esau brought home.

The brothers were twins, though far from identical. Smooth-skinned, slick-talking, clever Jacob was a scientific farmer who studied different ways to breed livestock for the traits he wanted, but had to give God the credit for his successes in breeding for minority traits while working for shares of Laban’s profits. He just knew (and so did his mother know) that he was better qualified to inherit the bulk of the estate and the social status that went with it, but since Esau was born first, Jacob had to play tricks on both his father and his brother to become the heir. After playing these tricks he worked on his uncle’s estate to give the righteous indignation time to cool off. Esau’s threat to kill Jacob might have been idle drunken bluster. Then again it might not. Both brothers were wealthy ranchers who employed a lot of young men to supervise their herds of animals. Herdsmen had to be prepared to fight off predators, so if Esau seriously wanted to kill Jacob, each brother was the head of a small army; the “fight” for the estate could have become gory. It didn’t, because Jacob’s “wrestling with God” gave him the grace of humility. As adults Jacob and Esau don’t seem ever to have been close, but they managed to coexist, with Jacob as head of the clan.

In Hebrew sar, a prince, or sarah, a princess, are the noun forms that go with a verb, yisar, meaning “he fights or wrestles.” Thus when Jacob reached his full status as heir, sheikh, patriarch, he received the title “Israel,” which can be understood to mean either “prince of God” or “he wrestles with God.” (In youth his grandmother, Sarah, had apparently earned a pejorative nickname, Sarai, which ought logically to have meant “my princess” but seems to have been understood to mean “quarrelsome.”)

Higgs’ attempt to re-create a man’s spiritual coming-of-age is still told primarily through the eyes of his wife. For me this gives the story more credibility (Higgs has done most research on the home lives and women’s work of eighteenth-century Scotland, which are of course what the “pioneers” brought to the Eastern States). For men, does it inherently, inevitably, keep a story told by a woman, for women, mostly from a woman’s point of view, somewhat off the mark? Possibly. Would a practical, even scientific man like Jacob tell a story of spiritual maturation in more detail than Whence Came a Prince? What the Bible tells us about Jacob’s spiritual journey consists of a few sketchy dreams he shared with his family, plus the record of how people remembered his everyday dealings with other people.

So…eighteenth-century Scotland is not the ancient Middle East. Jamie McKie matures into a “bonnet laird,” not technically a prince…but Jamie McKie is still only in his twenties, and he’s still Leana’s Prince Charming. And Higgs spares us the murky business with the maidservants, although the names of Eliza and Annabel seem chosen as being as close as eighteenth-century Scottish names got to Zilpah and Bilhah.  Jamie, Rose, and Leana are still cousins, but at least, after Rose dies, only two people are sharing a bed.

I suspect that most people who enjoy Whence Came a Prince will enjoy it for the social history. Leana is still using the herbs and recipes, guided by the superstitions, reciting the poems and singing the songs, and dressing everybody in the clothes, of eighteenth-century Scotland. If these novels are on the long side, that does them no harm; anyone who’s read the Bible knows how the story has to come out (although, as noted, Higgs has taken some liberties) so readers are lingering for the atmosphere, quaint yet somehow homelike, of our great-great-great-grandmothers’ time. We want to know when and how people used the herb called lady’s-mantle, what lullabies parents sang to babies, what remedies herdsmen applied to injured sheep. Higgs tells readers all these things, and evidently, judging by the popularity of this series, they relish every bit of it.

All four volumes of this series are widely available secondhand, and the paperback editions would fit into a single package, so you could buy them here under the usual Fair Trade Book terms: $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment. (Yes, that's $10 or $11 for one book, $25 or $26 for the lot.) Out of this price I'd send $1 for one book or $4 for the set to Higgs or a charity of her choice. 

If you can possibly afford it, though, I'd prefer to encourage you to buy the set as new books directly from Higgs' site. She put a lot of work into these books, they're still reasonably new, and they're a lovely long mellow read for those who enjoy curling up with a good clean novel. (Merry Christmas, Liz...)