The Boy in Red (by Violet Needham)

My mother was a huge fan of Violet Needham when she was a teenager. She bought some of the books when they were newly published, and then as an adult found others in charity shops or, later on, re-published new editions. I hadn’t read most of them; my taste for historical fiction didn’t develop until I was an adult, and for some reason they never appealed.

When my mother passed away a couple of years ago, I decided to adopt her collection of Needham books, and am - very slowly, interspersed by other books - reading them. I think I appreciate them more as an adult than I would have done when I was younger.

‘The Boy in Red’ stands alone rather than being part of a series. It’s set in Holland in the 16th century. It features a 12-year-old boy called Maurice, in the period when there were violent battles between the Roman Catholics and the Calvinists in Europe. Maurice’s father is Catholic but his mother is Protestant. Life is dangerous, but they are an upper-class family, friendly with the Prince of Orange, a historical character also known as William the Silent. Maurice is devoted to the Prince, and his parents agree to let him become a page in the royal service.

William’s introduction into life as a page is fraught with difficulties and uncertainties, but he’s a likeable boy and soon makes friends. His loyalty and courage ensure that he is entrusted with some dangerous missions; he suffers a great deal at one point, although the author skates very lightly over the details.

I found it quite hard to get into this story at first. I didn’t know anything much about this period in European history, and was quite shocked at the extent of the bloodshed between two factions of what we now recognise as branches of the same faith. Much of this is hearsay; this is, after all, a book intended for older children and the details given are vague, although it’s clear that many people lose their lives, sometimes in highly unpleasant ways.

By the time I was half way through it became difficult to put this book down; it’s well-written, as are the author’s other books that I’ve read. There’s plenty of excitement and tension, and Violet Needham is clever in weaving her story of this fictional page into the real life historical scenarios.

However, it’s not really my kind of book. I liked Maurice as a character, but found most of the others a little two-dimensional; there were rather too many people for me to relate to them all, and I sometimes got a bit lost, trying to remember who was whom, and - in particular - who was on which side. It might have helped if I had been familiar with the historical context.

‘The Boy in Red’ has recently been re-published in full by Girls Gone By, with an introduction that introduces William the Silent and may make it easier to understand the historical references. This could be of interest to older children or teens who are interested in 16th century European history, but is most likely to appeal to adults who remember the author from their childhood.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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