Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Justice for None: The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

Tonight, at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life.

He smiled big, scrubbed his mouth with the end of his cloak, and said, "We're moving house."

"Thank the blessed Virgin!" I sat up straighter and smoothed my kirtle. "Will we be back at Edgeley Hall in time for the Maypole?"

"No, sweeting. We're moving to Caernarvon."

"What in God's name is that?"

It is 1293. Edward I, victorious over the Welsh, is seeking Englishmen for his newly built garrison cities, settlers for his occupied lands, and Cecily's father, a landless second son, jumps at the chance to become a burgess in that settlement, a walled town surrounded by barely subjugated Welsh farmers.

After a harrowing journey, with only her dead mother's old dog as a reminder of her happy former life, Cecily arrives in Caernarvon. She is dazzled by the beauty of the castle, but dismayed at life on the frontier, the primitiveness and anger of the Welsh, their strange language, and the pretentiousness of the honesti, English "old settlers," who look down on the newcomers, the scorned novi. Her father is delighted with the chance to become a powerful landowner on the new border; their housekeeper Mrs. Tipley suffers no guff from Cecily as the imperious, would-be mistress of their house: and she is left to take her resentment and spite out on the Welsh housemaid, a servant girl about her age, Gwenhwyfar, whose family, unknown to Cecily, once owned the lands now assigned by the Crown to Cecily's father.

The two girls, both strong-willed, are natural enemies. Cecily is determined to be the mistress of the house, and Gwinny, dependent upon her small wages to maintain her life and that of her desperately ill mother, is determined to do her work without submission to Cecily's frequent tantrums, secretly calling her "the brat." Cecily takes offense at Gwinny's brother's frank stares, and sets out to humiliate him and have him unjustly punished at every opportunity. Gwinny takes revenge by shredding Cecily's wardrobe, for which Cecily sees that Gwinny is lashed within an inch of her life.

But Mrs. Tipley insists that Cecily give the injured girl her own bed and care for her as she recovers, and as time passes, the two come to a grudging respect for the other's dogged strength. Cecily rescues Gwinny from mistreatment so that "justice must be done," and Gwinny saves Cecily from an unwanted attack by the lascivious Edward, and finally reveals to her that the young man that Cecily has been persecuting is her only surviving brother.

"To think you almost had me hoodwinked. With your pitiful nod to justice and your feeding the poor. More fool I, thinking you were any different from the rest. Especially the likes of that shrew in the gilded townhouse you cannot complain of enough."

"Name one thing she does that I do!"

"Murder. Your hands won't be on the rope, but his blood will be on your hands."

"Whose blood?" I gesture toward the backyard. "His? What is he to you?"

"My brother," Gwinny chokes. "And he's all I've got, rot you."

Cecily understands. She has only her father, and he has only her. To atone, Cecily quietly arranges for her father to get Gwinny's brother Gruffwyd a secure job cutting wood, and when the Welsh rebel Madog leads a bloody insurrection in which Caernavon is sacked and the English are slaughtered, it is Gruffyd who saves Cecily, who then finds herself a servant to Gwinny, living in their poor hut and her life dependent upon them to hide her from the rebels.

As Aeschylus said, if "in war, the first casualty is truth, surely the second is justice." J. Anderson Coats' forthcoming novel, The Wicked and the Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) explores the nature of that justice, in one of those all-too-familiar human situations in which the passion for vengeance overcomes the restraints of law, justice, and faith itself. This is a powerful novel which deals with a little-known period of history, but the lesson of which has not yet been learned in the life of nations, and it does so through the words and thoughts of two narrators portrayed in all their humanity. Cecily and Gwinny cannot change the times or their bloody conjoined history, but they do find a way to change their hearts in the recognition of their common nature. Coats offers, in her appended historical note, the reassuring theme that over the many intervening centuries the Welsh and the English have come to a still uneasy accommodation to their common destiny, but this glimpse of the wages of vengeance make the reader wish that somehow they, and we, had found a better way.

"Brilliant: a vision of history before the victors wrote it," says Kirkus Reviews.

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