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by Leigh Sauerwein
Front Street, 2003
Review by Su Terry on Aug 26th 2004

Song for Eloise

            Every year I select one book that I designate as the best book that I read that year. This year that book will probably be Song of Eloise by Leigh Sauerwein. This year's book was selected for its sheer beauty of description. It is a rich medieval tapestry worth revisiting again and again.

            Song of Eloise is set in medieval France. The primary story of the novel centers on Eloise, the youngest daughter Baudoin. Baudoin is a strong medieval war lord. When his sons are killed in a battle on a crusade, he is devastated. Baudoin's old friend and ally, Robert of Rochefort is the only one who can lift his spirits. Thus it is not unusual when Robert requests Eloise in marriage, Baudoin accepts. At fifteen, Eloise is not too young for marriage, but she balks at the thought of marrying Robert whom she considers old at "30 winters". None-the-less the marriage takes place and Eloise is literally carted off to Robert's mountaintop castle. There she encounters Lady Merle, his blind mother whose need to touch is frightening to her. Over the course of a year Eloise encounters all that life can throw at a woman - love, childbirth, and widowhood - not necessarily in that order. Surrounding Eloise, however, is the rich tapestry of medieval life. Robert, the illegitimate son of a war lord, struggles to make his young wife happy and to just once smile at him. Merle, risen from foundling to war lord's mistress to lady of the castle, struggles with the fairy voices that haunt her head. Thomas, a son of a fisherman and castle firemaker, grows up, learns to write, and becomes a "trobar" or troubadour.  Eloise's Uncle John, a battle weary crusader turned artist seeks penance painting in a crypt after killing a starving robber. In addition, there are the brief images of named and unnamed monks, lords, ladies, servants, peasants, and animals going about their daily lives. Throughout the novel is the ongoing verses of a calendar song "In January, the night is sixteen hours long, the day eight. In February, the night is fourteen days long, the day ten." etc. forever reminding the reader that life, like the medieval wheel of fate, is a never ending cycle eternally repeating.

What makes this novel so extraordinary is its ordinariness. The feelings and actions are eternal. Yet each character breaks modern stereotypes. Eloise is the heroine of the story, yet modern fiction would class her as spoilt and self-centered. Robert, her husband, is not a stereotypical lecher desiring to bed a young girl. He truly loves Eloise, waited for her to come of marriageable age, and trembled when he took her hand in marriage. Lady Merle haunts the edge of the story, understandably using her hands to "see" her world. While Eloise views her as a spiteful meddlesome mother-in-law, time and time again she does not hurt Eloise, but helps her. Throughout the novel all are seldom what they seem, but none are startlingly shocking. People are portrayed as both helpful and hurtful, pitiless in their cruelty and pitiable in their woundedness. Young readers may sympathize too much with Eloise as a victim, but within her historical context, the pattern of life is status quo.  It might be hard for some reader to move beyond 21st century sensitivities to view Eloise's life within its 12th century context.

"Leigh Sauerwein is a native of the United States and has lived for the last 20 years in France She is a professional writer and translator and has published extensively for children. Her first book in English, The Way Home (1994), was published in the United States to considerable acclaim."

 Song of Eloise by Leigh Sauerwein is beautifully written. It is a picture book of words. It is suggested for grade 8 and up. Some parents may find the description of childbirth and frank allusions to sex troublesome. I HIGHLY recommend this book for young adults AND adults.

 

© 2004 Su Terry

 Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.