16/08/2003

Go Saddle the Sea (by Joan Aiken)

Joan Aiken is probably best known for her children's book 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase'. She has also written several other books for older children, as well as some rather chilling ones for adults. I have read a couple of books aloud to my teenage sons, and we decided that this one would be our next read-aloud.

'Go Saddle the Sea', which is told in the first person, is the first in a trilogy set in the early 19th century. It features Felix, an orphan who is twelve years old at the start of this book. He is strong-willed, rather arrogant, very lonely, having experienced little affection in his life.

He lives in a large house in Spain, with his grandparents and some great-aunts who dislike him. His mother died when he was born, his father in battle. He is taught at home by Father Tomas, his grandfather's chaplain; Father Tomas is a very strict teacher who beats Felix frequently.

In the past, Felix was given some care and companionship from Bob, who worked as a groom for his grandfather for many years, and who had some papers belonging to Felix's father. He is also fond of the cook. However most of his life seems to be spent in trying to avoid further beatings.

The opening chapter of the book sees the cook dying, and Felix in big trouble. She gives him his father's papers, which Bob had entrusted to her when he died. Unfortunately the writing on the papers is mostly illegible'. Felix decides that there is nothing worth staying for with Bernie dead, so without really considering the consequences he saddles a mule, and sets off to find his father's family in England.

He is quite unprepared for the many adventures he experiences in his journey, but he is both resourceful and intelligent, despite his naiveté. He gradually learns that he is inexperienced and ignorant, and that other people - and sometimes animals! - often know better than he does. Along the way he learns the value of friendship, and eventually develops some humility when in his stubbornness he leaps into danger, leading a friend to risk his own life to save him.

Although the actual adventures and escapes rely rather too much on coincidence and luck to be realistic, becoming more and more unlikely as the book progresses, there is a believable historical background to the book, making it educationally useful, in a low-key way, for anyone wanting to know about life in Europe in the 1800s from a young teenage perspective.

As an adult, I thought it a good book: it was fun to read aloud, with moments of humour and sufficient tension to keep me turning the pages. The plot itself was little more than a series of escapes, but there was a lot of underlying growth in the character of Felix. While part of the conclusion is predictable, there is one unexpected twist that was a surprise to us all; moreoever the very end of the book sees Felix having to make another big decision, which he does in his old impetuous way, and which leaves the way open for the sequel rather than giving a tidy end.

The language and structure of this book is more complex than that of 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', so I wouldn't expect children under the age of about eight or nine to read it for themselves, although it would make a good read-aloud for a child of any age who likes exciting stories. Having said that, I would not recommend it for a small child prone to nightmares, as there are one or two suspenseful and potentially scary sections, and some rather unpleasant descriptions later in the book.

Recommended for older children, younger teens, or adults wanting a break from their regular reading! Still in print in both the UK and USA. The sequels are called 'Bridle the Wind' and 'The Teeth of the Gale'. The three books together are sometimes sold as the 'Felix Trilogy'.

(My slightly longer review of 'Go Saddle the Sea' is published on the Ciao site)

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