When I first saw Elvira Woodruff’s The Ravenmaster’s Secret: Escape from the Tower of London, I couldn’t help thinking how terribly interesting and ominous it appeared to be, and I wanted to buy the book, but it was a bit expensive so I decided to pass on it first.
Then some months later, I mooched a book from abroad that needed an additional mooch to help defray shipping costs, and I found a copy of this book in the member’s inventory so I decided to finally get it.
A couple weekends ago, I went out of town for a board meeting with one of my clients and brought this along to read while traveling, and it turned out to be one of the best historical middle-reader books I’ve ever read.
The Ravenmaster’s Secret: Escape from the Tower of London (#132 for 2009) is about eleven year old Forrest Harper, the son of a yeoman warder who guards the Tower of London in the year 1735, when it was used as a prison.
Forrest’s father is also known as the Ravenmaster, as aside from guarding the prisoners, he also cares for the ravens that live in the tower walls, kept for good luck and fortitude against enemies.
Forrest has lived by the castle walls all of his life, doing his share of chores day in and out. He longs for the outside world, dreaming of adventures on masted ships and faraway lands.
Because they live in isolation, Forrest has no friends, save for his pet raven, Tuck, and the ratcatcher’s Boy, whom everyone calls Rat (his real name turns out to be Ned). Forrest is often bullied by the London kids on the few occasions he steps out into the city (mostly during hangings, which his mother enjoys watching), called “Hare Heart” because he is always seen with his mother and sisters.
Forrest’s life takes on a different turn when a group of Scottish prisoners are brought to the tower, and Forrest is tasked to bring food and water to one particular prisoner — a young girl named Maddy. And despite his better judgment, he befriends the prisoner and promises to find a way to help her escape.
I’ve never read Elvira Woodruff before (she’s written over 20 books for kids) but after this book I definitely want to read more of her work. I liked this book because it evoked so much mood — dark and sinister (but not nightmarish for young readers) with all the right elements: the creaking moat, a haunted tower, an old-fashioned prison break, and vivid and delightful characters that seemed to jump out of the page. It was like watching a period movie!
One of the best characters in this book (aside from Forrest, Maddy, and Ned, of course) is Simon Frick, the Tower’s chimney sweep, who had a legendary reputation for abusing his climbing boys (providing an readers an early glimpse into child labor). The ratcatcher lost a bet to Frick and had to give up Ned as payment, and Frick was seriously scary.
Forrest didn’t want Ned to turn into one of Frick’s ghoulish apprentices, and mutters under his breath, and Frick hears him and warns him not to interfere with what is soon to be his property. I seriously got goosebumps when he said to Forrest, ”Ever tasted raven, lad? Turned slow on a spit. The meat torn from the bone. I hear it makes a very good meal.”
I like how Woodruff strings her words together. In an interview with Scholastic, Woodruff reveals:
“I am very conscious of the words I choose to use to tell my stories. Before I even began The Ravenmaster’s Secret I read books and books full of English and Gallic words and phrases from the 1700’s. And every time I found one that worked, like tattie boggle, I would feel a rush of excitement! It just sounded so right for my story and for my Maddy to say.
But sometimes phrases can come out of the clear blue, when I’m not even hunting for them. I was in the middle of writing the book, when I went out one night to a fancy restaurant. The waiter came to the table and proceeded to tell us the evening’s specials, “Tonight,” he announced. “We have rabbit, torn from the bone, served over a bed of rice.”
After hearing “torn from the bone,” none of us at the table could bear to order the meat! It just sounded so gruesome. But it was music to my ears, because I had the perfectly gruesome phrase to put in my villain, Simon Frick’s mouth, when he asks Forrest if he’s “ever tasted raven, torn from the bone?”
I also liked that the book tackles subjects that are still relevant to kids in this day and age, such as bullying, responsibility, family, friendship, and courage.
When Forrest is bullied by the London kids, and wishes he was big and strong so the kids wouldn’t pick on him, his father says, ‘Tis their own weakness that drives them to torment others. I dare say, by wishing to change yourself to please them, why, you’ve only given them power over you.
I also liked the book because of its outlook on war, showing that despite the war between the countries, not everyone is invested in the cause. When Forrest tells his parents about the bad things he’s heard about the Scots, his mother tells him, “Best not to believe all you hear for people will say anything to inflame men’s hearts in a time of war.”
It’s also very Dickensian — I love these types of books! Forrest and Maddy become friends despite the war between England and Scotland, and I like how the book deals with prejudice against either country. Forrest, Maddy, Ned, and Tuck make quite a team as they carry out Maddy’s big escape, proving that heroism doesn’t come with size, or age, and I imagine this would be quite inspiring for younger readers.
Another major theme of the book is facing up to your destiny, or dree yer ain wierd in Maddy’s Gaelic. By the end of the book, Forrest faces up to his destiny as the next Ravenmaster of the Tower of London, and Ned and Maddy face up to theirs. The ending was a bit abrupt, though, and I would have loved to find out what happened in between but I liked that the Ravenmaster referred to in the title is actually Forrest, and not his father.
I really enjoyed reading this book, and I wish it was a series instead so I can enjoy it longer. But Woodruff gives us another ending, this time set in 2003 (see below), from the Scholastic discussion guide.
I’m definitely adding Elvira Woodruff to my list of favorite middle-reader authors!
My copy: paperback
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
*cover photo from sxc.hu
Epilogue: The Ring is Returned
A Windy Spring Day on Tower Green, in the Year 2003
“Watch your step and mind the ravens,” the warder warned, as digital cameras clicked and children giggled. “Don’t try to pet the birds or feed them, please. They’ve been known to turn nasty with tourists and we wouldn’t want to lose any fingers.”
All the children in the group instantly inched back, fearful of the large, black- winged birds that strutted beside them on the grass. All the children that is, but one. For as the group moved forward, following the warder through the portcullis onto Water Lane, one girl stayed behind. She loved birds and so was not afraid of the ravens.
As her classmates hurried off to the gift shop, one of the magnificent birds stepped up to the girl, lowered his head, and murmured softly, “Keck, keck, keck“.
The girl’s blue eyes brightened as she smiled and lowered her head.
“Keck, keck, keck,” she repeated.
She watched as the bird hopped along, a low stonewall, turning around every few feet to look at her.
“Do you want me to follow you?” the girl called. She took a few steps towards the raven and when he finally stopped she was surprised to see him digging with his beak beside the wall. What could he be searching for? The girl wondered.
It wasn’t long before she had an answer, for as the raven hopped back over to her, she could plainly see that he was carrying something in his beak. When he spread his wings and flew up to a nearby bench, the girl walked over and sat down beside him.
“What have you got there?” she whispered. And as if in answer to her question, the raven opened his beak and a round object fell out, onto the bench. The girl reached over and picked it up. She could see at once that it was a ring, a very dirty ring! It was covered in mold, and crusted with mud. She tried rubbing it clean on her backpack. Some of the dirt fell away and though the stone was still cloudy, she could see that it was red.
The girl smiled. Red was her favorite color. When she heard her teacher calling her name, she slipped the ring into the pocket of her backpack and sprang from the bench. The rest of the day she was too busy seeing all the ‘sights’ at the Tower to think much more about her find.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon, as she sat on the train out of King’s Cross to Edinburgh, that the girl remembered the ring as she reached into her back- pack to look for some gum.
“What’s that?” her friend, who was sitting beside her, asked.
“Some old ring that I found,” the girl told her, as she held it up to the train’s window. She wet her fingers and tried to clean off more of the dirt.
“Probably not real gold,” her friend said.
The girl shrugged. “Probably not.”
She was about to put it back into her backpack when something caught her eye.
“Look,” she whispered. “There are words written inside, around the band.”
“What do they say?” her friend asked.
“Dree yer ain wierd,” the girl read aloud.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said.
“Maybe it’s a secret code,” the friend suggested.
The girl smiled. She loved secrets. So she slipped the ring onto her thumb and wore it for the rest of the trip, home to Scotland. And as she looked out the train’s window, she could see the familiar castles, rising beside shimmering lakes, and fields of buttercups dotting the Scottish hillside.
“I wonder what it was really like,” she said, as she tapped the old ring against the windowpane.
“What?” her friend asked.
“That old Tower of London. I wonder what it must have been like to have lived there long ago.”
“Without TV?” Her friend made a face. ” It was probably boring as could be.”
“Aye, maybe,” the girl whispered. But as a beam of sunlight lit up the ruby on her finger, she smiled and closed her eyes. “Or maybe not.”