The Highwayman's Curse by Nicola Morgan

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The Highwayman's Curse by Nicola Morgan

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: As rich and flavoursome as Morgan's first novel about Will and Bess, this one develops the political message a little further and finds more ways to relate them to world events of today. It's just as exciting, but the claustrophobic vicious circle of hatred and poverty gives it a darker, less romantic feel. Excellent development for the young reader. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2007
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1406303124

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At the end of the first book about these junior highwaymen, we left Will and Bess escaping the Redcoats and heading for Scotland. Far from finding a safe haven, within days they are blamed for a murder they did not commit and taken prisoner by smugglers.

Their captors are Covenanters, those Protestants who separated church from crown and rejected the hierarchy of bishops. Seventy years before Will and Bess find themselves among the Covenanters, British dragoons tried to force a woman and her daughter to make an oath to the king. When they refused, they were tied to stakes on the beach and drowned in the rising tide. Old Maggie, the grandmother in the smuggling family, watched her mother die in a similarly barbaric execution and this death has informed the clan's world view ever since. Will and Bess are held captive not just because they may inform on the family's smuggling, but also because of the years of hatred and distrust bred by religious persecution.

Eventually, Will and Bess do earn trust. The tension in this book is not so much the tension of event, but the tension of belief. Bess, the political firebrand, finds much to commend in the hard life she has encountered. In denying the King his taxes, there is a Robin Hood aspect to the smuggling life that appeals greatly to her. She sees the ongoing hatred as honourable, a testament to strength of purpose. Will, the more temperate of the two, sees the ills in the social structure he is beginning to understand all too well; the injustice, the grinding poverty, the vicious circle of crime. But he can't accept the violence or the refusal to tolerate.

The Highwayman's Curse is a darker, more claustrophobic book than its predecessor. There is less high romance and more introspection. The political points are slightly more complicated and the parallels with today slightly more sophisticated. I don't think this is a bad thing; children develop as they read and one of the most valuable insights children can take from reading historical fiction is plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Children find this sort of enlightenment highly inspirational; they suddenly realise that they themselves could be the ones to break the cycle.

It's as vivid and vital as the first book though - as evocative of time and place as ever you could wish. Morgan apologises for the lack of Scots dialect in the preface, fearing it would alienate too many readers, but for this English reader the Scots-flavoured dialogue was one of the strongest elements to the book, accessible, but energetic, rich and deep. Here's Old Maggie's curse to illustrate:

I curse their heid an' all the hairs upon their heid; I curse their face, their eyes, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their neck, their shoulders, their heart, their stomach, their arms, their legs, an' every part o' their body, from the top o' their heid tae the soles o' their feet, afore an' behind, within an' withoot.

I condemn them tae the the deep pit o' Hell, tae remain wi' Lucifer an' all his fellows, an' their bodies to the gallows, first tae be hangit, then takken down an' left tae rot wi' dogs, an' swine, an' other foul beasts, abominable tae all the world. An' may their light go from oor sight, as their souls go from the eyes o' God, an' only in three thousand year will they rise from this terrible cursing, an' mak satisfaction an' penance. An' so I curse their souls.

I don't know about you, but it made my hair stand on end.

Clear-eyed, carefully structured and capable of analysis, yet vivid, energetic and motivational, I loved The Highwayman's Curse just as much as I loved Morgan's first book about Will and Bess. It's everything you could ask for in an historical novel and it comes highly recommended by Bookbag.

My thanks to the nice people at Walker for sending the book.

If they enjoy books about this period and this kind of historical adventure, they might also like Linda Buckley-Archer's books about Gideon the Cutpurse, which are equally vivid and have a time travel twist. Elizabeth Laird's Crusade is a classy historical novel set further back in the past, but with similar allusions to contemporary religious hatred.

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