One of my favorite things is books. They don’t fluctuate in price- by- gallon and hold you by the throat with their petroleum extortions. I don’t get car sick in a book like I do in a car. And I don’t have to pack a million things, just in case. I do enjoy the sound of rain drumming on the car, or at the windows of my room. The difference is, when I stop a book, I don’t have to get out into the rain to go do what I have to do. The majority of my books are free, and they can sit and wait for a long time before I get back to using them again. They might get dusty, but they won’t lose their air.
So traveling by book is a pleasant thing. One of my favorite places to go is the Middle Ages, albeit a sometimes romanticized version of the period. It’s hard to judge accuracy when I read histories of the Middle Ages, because so many authors have their perceptions that they want to force upon others without acknowledging any possible alternative viewpoint. But in fiction, I have found a place that is so wonderful that I decided one of my first posts here would be about it. Ellis Peters (see here) is a woman who wrote mysteries, among many other things which I have yet to even explore. In my situation, her Brother Cadfael series (see here) has been a delightful exploration of the time period (the 12th century), England (Shropshire), and the life of this murder mystery solving monk who has a complex life and a simple love of humanity.
The narrative is a winding path that follows the development of the facts in each case while also exploring nature, humanity, and a subplot of romance. Peters spends as much time exploring the joy of riding horseback through the wintry English countryside as she does providing clues to solving a murder. She is careful in her characters’ discussions of the pressing mystery to be accurate and yet not lose the average reader. As an average reader, I appreciate that consideration. Some times, with Agatha Christie, I found myself wondering what hat she pulled THAT suspect out of! And honestly, I avoid the most modern writing of murders and mayhem because they tend to dwell on (as in: apparently delight in) the sensory overload of detailed description of suffering. No thank you. Ellis writes in a humane way and her characters reflect that depth of humanity. The effect is joyful to behold.
Given, this is not a series you want to read through in huge rude gulps. Not only will you miss the meandering descriptions, but you will become well aware that this is a series of twenty books with very similar plot formulas. There is a murder; there are a boy and girl who need help coming together; there is someone, usually an official or noble personage, who obstructs; and Cadfael eventually pries the threads apart and discovers the truth. That’s about all of it. And yet, it isn’t.
One of the joys of the series is the development of the characters. First, let me back up a moment and say that while the series can be read out of order, I recommend going in order. There are story arcs that add an entire level of appreciation to the rest of the story. The books then become greater than the sum of their parts. So, the development of the characters and their relationships are some of the best parts. Cadfael’s decision to join the order, his reversal of his perception of Hugh Berringer, their continuing relationship, the obstructive tendencies of certain other regular characters, all take a certain growing familiarity with the series. Actually, the obstructive characters are pretty much recognizable for what they are. But sometimes they do something right, as well, which adds to the depth of the characters on the whole.
There are some books of the series that have some pretty adult issues that come up. I would say that a parent might want to read ahead and make the decision which books a child will read. I have done that, and it resulted in my child reading about half of the books. The rest will await until she is older. No worries, no rush. Peters deals with these issues in a compassionate way: compassionate for the characters involved, and considerate of her readers.
The series is a bit formulaic, but classy all the same. The stories are good. The escapism works for me. Here is a list of the books in order: (here).
I will add that the list places as last the book of three short stories which actually begin the chronological narrative of Cadfael, so I recommend that first.
And just as a car trip must come to an end, and we must return to what feels like the humdrum of our regular routine, the same sometimes happens when we read a book. That is one of the risks of traveling. In my experience it seems as if the farther you go, the stranger it feels when you find yourself home again.