Educator Charlotte Mason would have called The Children of the New Forest a “living history book” since it painlessly teaches the basics of the English Civil War. If that event doesn’t ring a bell, the name “Cromwell” might just jiggle your memory.
The “Roundheads,” supported by the Parlimentary army, are determined to snuff out the Royalist sympathizers who support King Charles. In the first chapters of the book soldiers are looking for the fugitive king in the New Forest. They burn down the house of a Royalist, Colonel Beverly, and Beverly’s children are forced to flee. They move into the cottage of the groundskeeper Jacob Armitage who hides them, pretending they are his grandchildren. These children of privilege are taught to work and do chores and they adapt quickly to their new life.
At this point the book takes some implausible turns. Jacob teaches them to work, but suddenly the young people are experts on everything (making butter, taming horses, building fences, etc.). This was one of the first historical novels written for young readers and as such its teenaged protagonists perform heroic feats that are sometimes unbelievable (like when the 14 and 16 year old boys fight off a gang of robbers). On the other hand, fifteen year old children in the 17th century were not the babies they are now.
The book is written from a pro-Royalist, anti-Cromwell view which makes it intriguing. I really liked how the protagonist, Edward Beverly, forms a friendship with Master Heatherstone (a man who should be his enemy) because they are both men of high character who want what is best for England. Both are sorry for the way their political parties have taken advantage of their power.
It’s a sort of “Swiss Family Robinson” in the English forest. There’s some “living science” thrown in as the children learn horticulture and animal husbandry. The children adopt a gypsy boy who is portrayed stereotypically as lazy. His broken English could be offensive to some, especially his unfortunate use of the word “Massah” when he addresses Edward and Humphrey.
In spite of its shortcomings, I enjoyed this book. The presence of God is taken for granted. So are chivalry, honesty, and perseverance. And I appreciated the history lesson too.
Free for Kindle.