Jane Yolen &
Robert J. Harris,
Queen's Own Fool: A Novel
of Mary, Queen of Scots

(Philomel, 2000)

Jane Yolen teams up with Robert J. Harris to retell the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, as seen through a minor historical figure in Queen's Own Fool: A Novel of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Nicola Ambruzzi is a 13-year-old orphan living and performing with her uncle's troupe when they are summoned off the street to entertain at the court of Francis II, the young king of France. The troupe's reception is lukewarm, but pert and pithy-tongued Nicola attracts the attention of the queen, Mary, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. A teenager herself, the queen engages Nicola as a jester, the queen's own fool, charged with always speaking truth to the queen. She is called "La Jardiniere" because the queen discovered her in the palace gardens.

At first, Nicola feels as if she has walked into a fairy tale, so relieved is she to be warm, dry, well-fed and well-treated, far away from the blows of her uncle's stick. But the bright and shiny vision soon dims. She is weary of traveling from palace to palace, frightened when suddenly thrust into political tumult, and repulsed by the terrible punishment exacted on the rebellious. Then Francis II dies, and Mary, no longer Queen of France, leaves for Scotland's throne. Although apprehensive, Nicola is now devoted to her queen, and she plucks up her courage to go along.

In Scotland, Nicola finds that Mary is less inclined to listen to her counsel when it doesn't suit her, as when she accepts Lord Henry Darnley's suit for marriage. Nicola mistrusts and despises the man but cannot make her beloved queen listen to her. Around this time she also befriends the ill-fated David Riccio, Mary's new music master and, eventually, her trusted secretary and adviser.

Yolen and Harris cannot change history; the events unfold steadily: Darnley's death, Mary's subsequent marriage to Bothwell, her imprisonment at Lochleven and escape, all leading toward the doomed queen's final departure to England. Nicola is there for most of it, lending a personal perspective to the historical portrait.

Nicola is a lively and appealing character, loyal to her mistress yet not blindly so. She is clever and observant, but human enough to make mistakes or restrain herself when she should speak out. The bloody events become real to the reader when experienced through her viewpoint and emotional reactions. Indeed, the authors bring history to life through their riveting narrative.

There has been a resurgence of historical fiction in children's and young adult literature, much of it directed toward girls, giving them a sense of their role in history and inspiring them to pursue history as a subject for itself. Much of what is available is somewhat formulaic, such as the various diary-based series available, but there are a substantial number of polished, well-written novels which, while presenting historical events, also fulfill one of the most important rules of writing: tell a good story well.

Certainly, Yolen and Harris's Queen's Own Fool is a shining example of the genre. Don't play the fool and miss it.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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