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Medieval Castaway

9:07 AM, Nov 3, 2011 • By THERESA CIVANTOS
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Poor Banished Children
A Novel

by Fiorella de Maria
Ignatius, 299pp., $19.95

It’s not often that a historical novel comes along that is at once period-appropriate, psychologically plausible -- and very, very difficult to put down. But Poor Banished Children, by newcomer Fiorella de Maria, fits the description. It tells the story of a mysterious castaway woman who washes up, half-dead, on the English coast in 1640. Her language is unfamiliar, but she is desperate to tell her story, which she finds a way to do in a confessional form that unfolds gradually over the course of the novel.

As a child in Malta, her family had cast her out, so she found refuge with a clergyman who educated her and trained her as a surgeon. Too literate, too headstrong, and much too independent for marriage to any man in her village, she begins the process of becoming a church anchoress -- living a life of service and prayer attached to a particular parish -- only to be kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery before completing her final vows. Most of Poor Banished Children relates her trials and adventures, post-kidnapping.

If this sounds like a cheesy premise, odds are you won’t care for Poor Banished Children: It is unapologetically dramatic and emotional. But if you can stomach the drama, the novel's heart is one of its strong points. For example, the author deftly handles the psychology of slavery. Such a sensitive issue is difficult to portray in anything other than the starkest terms, yet she offers a surprisingly fresh, realistic look at the psychology of slavery, capturing many of its emotional complexities. It is also worth noting that there are gritty, violent scenes, which contribute to the book’s historical accuracy but are painful to read. This is not a book for the squeamish. Yet despite its sentiment and occasional graphic scenes, Poor Banished Children offers a hopeful message. Rooted in the religious worldview of the medieval age, it's an engaging story and enjoyable journey into a society and way of life that few today could imagine. 

Theresa Civantos is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.