Set in Britain in the Dark Ages, Monica Furlong’s novel Wise Child features a full cast of strong women, which would is particularly incongruous for the time. In this younger-grade novel, the women hold equal power to the men, particularly the two focused on in this post.
First of all we have Juniper, who takes in the orphaned Wise Child when no one else would. She is a mysterious figure living in the wilds of Cornwall, part-witch and part-philosopher. She is called a doran, a wise-woman, and as she opens a world to Wise Child that is based on hard work and dedication, but also on the possibilities of adventure beyond housework and village life. She is a kind teacher who never teases or threatens her ward while ensuring that Wise Child pulls her own load. Thus she models both the excitement of magic, but also the necessity of sweeping up after. Through her visits and support of a leper, she teaches the value of compassion and the importance of small good deeds as well as big ones. Though she is not without fault (see in particular the prequel to this book, Juniper) she demonstrates a vision of women as both strong and caring, wise and hard-working; leading a life beyond marriage and children.
Then we have Wise Child herself, who begins the novel as a spoiled and mulish child but develops into a fierce and self-aware young woman. As she blossoms on a diet of work and education, she gradually progresses from someone needing protection to a strong girl willing to stand up for herself and her loved ones. She accepts the consequences of her actions, though never the prejudices of society. At the end, we are left with a heroine who seeks excitement AND the wisdom and clarity of a true wise-woman.
It’s both an easy read and a (mostly) realistic look back at a time in history that hasn’t been much focused on by YA authors. Wise Child is sympathetic and Juniper is inspiring, and you’ll want to adventure with them further in Juniper, and the sequel to this book, Colman.