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The Gentleman Poet

November 22, 2011

The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Kathryn Johnson
Avon 2010
Library Book
319 Pages

Good historical fiction and good speculative fiction always keep me coming back to the YA shelves. And this one combines English settlers, Shakespeare, and culinary history. With a bit of banter and romance. So, of course, I loved it.

  In 1609, an English ship bound for the Virginia colony is shipwrecked in the Bermuda islands. Elizabeth Persons, a servant girl, is stranded there, along with a handful of other would-be settlers. She makes a place for herself in their small community, with a talent for cooking the foods of their new land. Cassava root, fish, freshly dug clams, sea grapes, herbs and salad greens. Even Elizabeth’s demanding mistress is forced to admit her cooking skill. Elizabeth befriends Will Strachey, a historian who is writing the account of their travel. She even begins forming a cautious friendship with Thomas, the taciturn ship’s cook. (With her knack for finding local delicacies, she’s a better, or more flavorful, cook than he is.)

There are a few of Elizabeth’s recipes sketched in, after they’ve appeared in the story. They look historically plausible, if impossible for a modern kitchen to re-create: with only sketched-in instructions, and arcane spellings, they read as true to an Elizabethan time period. “Take a little breste meat from the Byrds and grind well in Morter with small Raysons…”

And with the playwright hiding in plain sight as the shipwrecked historian, there are plenty of Shakespeare references and riffs. A big part of the fun of reading this story is seeing Will’s writing process interrupted, as young Elizabeth befriends him. Or catching the references that the author has woven through the novel, whether as the epigraphs above chapters, or elements in the plot itself. (The storm is one thing, but getting Elizabeth to be called Miranda was a little bit of a stretch.)

With careful attention to historical detail on the culinary side, or finding plausible ways for Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans to react to being shipwrecked, this novel does a lot of things right. Impressively, Johnson finds a tone for the narrative that packs plenty of drama and romance into the historical structure, without seeming either anachronistic or overwrought. (A rare and wonderful thing in YA of any time period.)

Only one quibble, and it’s an exceedingly minor one. While Johnson did a terrific job describing the sea voyage and the settlers getting accustomed to their island settlement, she did not give nearly enough detail about any characters for me to picture them. A beard here, a tall chef there… but the details were sketched in, in a way I had a harder time picturing them than their surroundings. Like I said, minor.

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