© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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The Unfortunate Son


By Constance Leeds

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen


Recommended for: Both boys and girls, ages 10 to 14, approximately, though demographic is easily this novel’s greatest problem, see review for further thoughts on that subject.


One Word Summary: Equable.


The Unfortunate Son falls into a noble, if underappreciated genre of children’s books: those that kids will only love when reread years later as an adult. Richly described, thoughtful, heartfelt and nuanced, there is just absolutely no way this book is going to fly with children.


Set predominantly in a picturesque fishing village in the south of France in 1486, The Unfortunate Son follows the entwined fates of two noble-born children growing up far from the plush lives that ought to have been endowed to them.


Beatrice was the daughter of a knight in the court of the Count de Muguet, a brutal Feudal lord who abhorred imperfection just as much as mercy. When Beatrice’s father was accused of stealing from the

Count to cover his gambling debts, Muguet was more than happy to have the man’s head lopped off in the public square, right in front of his then eight-year-old daughter, before any of the claims could be proven. Beatrice’s mother escaped to a nunnery and the little girl was whisked away by her doting nursemaid, Mattie, to the humble seaside cottage of the woman’s brother, Pons. 


Luc, the titular unfortunate son, indeed had the great misfortunes of being born to the monstrous Count himself, and being born with only one ear. Outraged by the deformity, the Count foisted the boy onto one of his grooms and set him and his wife up with a little olive grove (unbeknownst to him, in the same fishing village to which Mattie and Beatrice fled) for their troubles. Luc grew up believing himself to be the son of these dejected farmers who came to deeply resent the boy for secret reasons, beyond the obvious, which I won’t spoil. 


Beatrice and Luc are joined when, tired of having him around all the time, Luc’s surrogate parents send the boy to their neighbors, Pons and

Mattie, to become an apprentice fisherman. Pons is getting on in years and can’t quite handle the nets on his own anymore, but Luc proves to be a quick learner and takes to the trade like a duck to water. Strong, affable and handy, Luc becomes a cherished member of the family, as it were, and though Luc and Beatrice squabble and poke at each other like brother and sister, neithers charms are lost on the other.


But just when Luc has finally found a little love and stability, all is cast to the wind. One afternoon when Pons and Luc are out fishing, a black smudge appears on the horizon. The old man orders Luc to the oars, but there is nothing the boy can do to outpace the ship that bears down upon them, containing a band of Saracen pirates. Luc is taken prisoner aboard the ship where he endures terrible, dehumanizing conditions before arriving in North Africa where he is sold as a slave. Pons returns to the village to tell the tale to the horror-struck Mattie and Beatrice. What can a few peasants of little means possibly do to rescue the boy from points unknown when they don’t even know if he is still alive? What awaits Luc in his new life as a slave in the Arabian world? Will he ever go home again?


The old saying about not judging books by their covers may work when interpretively applied to non-book related situations, but when it comes to actual books, I can’t help it. When I picked up Son, with its tense cover image of a wooden ship on a roiling ocean, swarthy buccaneers hanging from the bows, the back cover emblazoned with “Captured by Pirates!” in a shade of dried blood, what I was expecting was a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas. What I got was a lot of scenes of an old French woman sitting on a bench, whittling wood. That’s not a metaphor.  Son is a lovely, deeply informed story, packed with well-researched historical detail, sitting right at the intersection of The Odyssey and Otto of the Silver Hand. And like Otto and Odyssey, it will take kids a more mature second reading of this book, which they will likely be assigned to read in school at some point, to fully appreciate its slow-paced tenderness.


Leeds’ prose is just like the Provencal soups she so lovingly describes: simple, composed of few ingredients, yet wholly transporting. I was in that little stone cottage with Mattie, Pons, Luc and Beatrice at the end of their long day, sipping broth by the fire. I felt the heat and the bustle of the bazaar in Tunis as Luc trod the streets in chains.  But for all her skill, it’s clear that Leeds’ intent is to inform and prompt, rather than to entertain. The young reader in me desperately wanted to see Beatrice run out in the night, charm a rowdy band of merchants into conveying her across the Mediterranean and, sword in hand, rescue her stolen friend, however improbable that may have been. But Leeds sticks to her history, and thus Beatrice is just as powerless as a young girl of her time period would have been. The author is positively allergic to cinematic action, overwrought emotion, and easy, black and white moralism, which is all well and good for the sophisticated reader, but not a lot of fun for the targeted age group.


And exactly what that age group is is truly hard to define. The debasement that Luc suffers on the Saracen ship is quite disturbing and pushes the age range of this story deep into middle grade territory, but the charms and soft touches that Leeds adds, like Mattie’s fish carvings and the child-like joy that they are meant to provoke seem suited to an audience who would be too young for the darker content of the story, or the intellectual arguments put forward by Luc’s enslavement.


To be sure Son is deserving of an audience. While Leeds’ scenes of digging for cockles in the chilly, lavender and salt scented sea breezes of the Cote D’Azure are the stuff of my tired cosmopolitan adult dreams, I don’t think those who haven’t endured the woes of a soul-bleaching commute will be able to savor them with the same reverie. Fifteen years from now there will probably be a whole generation of twenty-somethings who find this book at the bottom of a box of their old things from 5th grade, and fondly rediscover that book that once bored them to tears.

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