Reviewer Persis ("Perky") Granger: Perky is
an avid reader and a writer of fiction and nonfiction, including
Adirondack Gold, A Summer of Strangers and Shared Stories from
Daughters of Alzheimer's: Writing a path to peace. She studied at the
College of Wooster (OH) and the University of Massachusetts
(Amherst), earning a BA at the latter. She later completed her Master
of Science in Teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh.
She presents programs to adults and youth, and hosts writers’ retreats in New York and Florida. Learn more at www.PersisGranger.com (also accessed as www.FictionAmongFriends.com.)
In Plowshares of the Palatinate, author Phyllis Harrison pulls us into the heart of the 17th century, with its political unrest, alliances forged with wedding rings, religious intolerance, and the greed and evil that masqueraded as championing the “true faith” in that era. The second of Harrison’s historical fiction series, Plowshares picks up the odyssey of Gilles Montreville, who has been forced to live under the assumed name of “Gilles Jansen” in Amsterdam, after having escaped captivity—and foiled the executioner—in France, the victim of his wealthy family’s enemies, whose trumped-up charges painted a false picture of Gilles as one who consorted with the Huguenots, French protestants whose religious practices ran counter to French law at the time. In The Fires of Europe, Harrison’s forerunner of this novel, Gilles and his friend Jean Durie had narrowly escaped France to Amsterdam, where they lived with the knowledge that at any time their presence might be discovered by French bounty hunters, who would effect their return to French captivity and almost certain death. Amsterdam, a seaport in a country known for its tolerance of those of different faiths, had become haven to many refugees from less tolerant countries, affording Gilles and Jan a measure of safety, but the threat from French bounty hunters and occupying Spanish troops necessitated vigilance.
Refusing to allow this risk to dominate his life, Gilles created a new life for himself in the Netherlands, becoming proficient in the language and marrying the eldest daughter of an inn-keeper there. Although Elsje Hendrick’s social status was far beneath that which Gilles had enjoyed in his youth in France, the relationship between the two quietly flourished. Gilles alternately admired and was mystified by the role this woman of the Netherlands played. Far from being a submissive ornament on her husband’s arm, Elsje demonstrated significant business acumen, running the inn and restaurant. She exercised a degree of autonomy not uncommon for women in Dutch society, but unheard of in many parts of Europe. Gilles had learned that she was not to be ordered about, and recognized that she was rather to be negotiated with.
Gilles, who had been trained in accounting, had found employment managing an exclusive French restaurant owned by another French expatriate, M. Ste Germaine. Although highly respected and well-paid, Gilles yearned for something new, and began to dream of buying a farm. Elsje, sensing his discontent, offered to pack up their two children and travel with him to the Rhenish Palitinate, a state in Germany. They set their sites on Nouvelle Rochelle, a small Calvinist settlement on the Rhine. There they learned that those who had suffered from the intolerance of others, such as their Calvinist neighbors, could practice that same discrimination on others whose beliefs differed from their own. Into the midst of the dissention that fomented among the farmers swept a marauding band of French soldiers, intent upon killing Protestants. Escaping with little but the clothes on their back, Gilles and his little family returned to Amsterdam, only to learn that there, too, things had changed. Gone was the family inn, Gilles’ old job with the French restaurant, and the life that had promised renewed security. Only one course of action appeared viable, and it promised to take Gilles “Jansen” and his family half way across the world. The reader is left holding his breath, worrying about the dangerous sea voyage ahead and wondering what will come Gilles’ plan for a new life as a land-owning patron and an employee of the Dutch West India Company—questions to be answered in Harrison’s next novel.
Phyllis Harrison has done a good job of recreating the hustle and bustle of the port city of Amsterdam and, by extension, the electricity of a melting pot culture expanding into a new world. The reader feels the injustice of the religious intolerance and ethnic discrimination that allowed soldiers to ravage settlements and summarily execute citizens. That tension drives the plot, and we understand the pressure that motivated so many to emigrate from Europe.
And now the reader needs to know how this all will play out in the third novel. This one is looking forward to book three.
Also by Phyllis Harrison: The Fires of Europe