The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope.
Is there anything more promising than a novel that opens with a young person traveling to a mysterious ancestral home for the first time? The Secret Garden, The Children of Green Knowe, The Little White Horse; even, if you stretch it a little, Emily of New Moon. Delicious books with perfectly delicious beginnings.
The Sherwood Ring is a book of this sort, and it’s one of the deliciousest. The very moment Jane finished reading it, she was imploring me to begin, and I’m glad I heeded her plea. What a fabulous book: mystery, romance, humor, history. Most wonderful wonderful, out of all hooping.
Seventeen-year-old Peggy’s father has died and she’s been sent to live with her curmudgeonly uncle in upstate New York, at a (you guessed it) mysterious ancestral home called, delightfully and evocatively, Rest-and-Be-Thankful. Uncle Enos’s passion and lifelong obsession is Revolutionary War-era history; he has spent his life preserving the late-eighteenth-century aura and custom of the huge family home in which George Washington himself was reputed to have spent a night.
Not only is Rest-and-Be-Thankful rich in history, it has ghosts. At least, that’s what Peggy’s father tells her shortly before his death: family ghosts that not everyone can see.
“It’s not being able to see them himself that gets under [Enos’s] skin,” he tells Peggy. “Well, if I were a ghost I don’t know that I’d bother appearing to Enos either; but he seems to think that being the head of the family ought to have given him some sort of priority, and—the truth is, Peggy, if they do happen to get after you, it might be a good idea not to mention it. He’d never forgive you.”
Fortunately for Peggy, the ghosts do “get after her.” Hopelessly lost on the longish hike from train station to family estate, Peggy encounters a curiously dressed young woman on horseback, wrapped in a long red hooded cape—a surprising choice for a May afternoon, one might think. A greater surprise still will come later that day, when Peggy discovers a portrait of the same red-caped girl painted in 1773 by the great American artist John Singleton Copley.
This ghostly horsewoman points Peggy toward the correct fork in the road and promises that she’ll run into someone who can show her the rest of the way to Rest-and-Be-Thankful. And indeed Peggy does: a handsome young Englishman, a visiting scholar named Pat Thorne, is pulled over with car troubles on his way to see—who else?—Uncle Enos. He too is a historian, and he’s looking for information about a diary one of his ancestors was supposed to have written hundreds of years ago.
If Peggy is surprised at the gruff and dismissive manner in which her uncle greets her upon her arrival to her new home, she is even more surprised at his uncivil reaction to Pat Thorne’s arrival. “I have nothing whatsoever to say to you,” he glowers. “You will leave this house at once.” Pat, taken aback, politely retreats, but he’ll be back.
These are only the beginnings of the mysterious happenings that befall Peggy at Rest-and-Be-Thankful. Why, she hasn’t even met the dashing Continental Army officer yet, a genteel and amiable sort (I told you we quote that a lot!) who has quite a story to spin for her. And so begins the tale-within-a-tale, the high drama of the young officer’s long and eventful quest for a British officer-slash-guerrilla, a wily and charismatic underground agent whose schemes for disrupting supply lines and raiding storehouses are causing General Washington’s army no end of frustration, and may well turn the tide of the war in favor of the redcoats. This harrowing story is revealed to Peggy gradually, humorously, grippingly, by those ancestors of hers who actually lived the experience. And it seems that the more Peggy learns, the more mystery there is to puzzle out—especially regarding Uncle Enos’s apparent hatred of Pat Thorne.
Despite the abundance of ghosts, The Sherwood Ring is not at all creepy or terrifying. It’s a mystery, not a horror story. And a darn good mystery it is, with twists in all the right places.
Booknotes: The Dangerous World of Butterflies
“The exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting…is denied to me.”
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