Kit Pearson is back! Having garnered all the major prizes a Canadian children’s book author could hope for, she had dropped off the radar screen. After editing the impressive cross-country anthology of short stories This Land in 1998, she published a Dear Canada title, Whispers of War, five years ago. But it has been more than 10 years since a full novel came out with her name on the cover. Huzzahs are in order. (And to add to the fanfare, Penguin is publishing new editions of her backlist titles this fall.)
Pearson first came to my attention in 1986 with her first novel, The Daring Game. The following year, she brought out the highly imaginative and deftly plotted time-travel story, A Handful of Time. That novel’s young protagonist, Patricia, using an old watch discovered at the family cottage, is able to visit the summer when her mother was Patricia’s age. In telling the story, the early lives of Patricia and her mother become intertwined. And this, I think, is a key element in all of Pearson’s writing: the past made present.
Obviously this is true in her historical works, especially the highly successful Guests of War trilogy. But then there is the ghost in her Governor General’s Award winner, Awake and Dreaming, lingering in this world, searching for something. Even in The Daring Game, a story about boarding school life, the protagonist hopes that Ashdown Academy will be like the boarding houses of yesteryear she has read about in books such as Fiona of the Fifth or The Turbulent Term at St. Theresa’s. The past that most pervades Pearson’s work is the literary past.
A Perfect Gentle Knight is historical fiction that also feels like a book from an earlier era. It is old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word. The setting is 1950s Vancouver – a time and place I happen to know well from my own childhood, which also included family dinners at the White Spot and seeing Old Yeller at the Orpheum. This is Corrie Bell’s world.
Corrie, 11, is the well-adjusted sensible kid in a large family. Her full name is Cordelia, after King Lear’s best-loved daughter. And while he is not really mad, Corrie’s father is not entirely in his right mind. The loving but absent-minded English professor has given all his kids names from Shakespeare. They affectionately call him Fa (which I can’t help thinking is two-thirds of the way to far, as in away). Conspicuous in her absence is the children’s mother. It has been three years since she died and the family has been making do with a succession of hapless housekeepers and a father who is either at the university or in his study. In truth, Fa is in that proverbial “brown study” of unresolved grief. He has left his oldest child in charge of pretty well everything.
That child is Sebastian, Corrie’s 15-year-old brother, the eponymous perfect gentle knight. Like his namesake in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Pearson’s Sebastian is a boy lost at sea. Under the weight of his own unattended grief and with far too much responsibility thrust upon his narrow shoulders, he has taken on the mantle of a “knight in shining armour,” and has brought the household under the thrall of the Round Table Game. The round table is in a shed called Camelot at the end of the garden. There the children meet and Sebastian, aka Lancelot, holds sway. But Camelot is far from idyllic.
Roz, 13, is losing interest in the Arthurian fantasy that Sebastian clings to so desperately. All the other children, including Corrie, love the game and how close-knit and safe it makes their rudderless home life seem. But Roz’s disenchantment and eventual breakaway reveal to Corrie just how deeply disturbed her brother has become.
The result is a story that’s engaging, suspenseful, and deeply poignant – a psychological novel about both the joy of make-believe and the need to end the pretending.
Pearson’s plotting is as sure-handed as ever. Her ability as a cast wrangler is superb; each character is distinctly observed and heard. Perhaps her greatest strength, however, is her pitch-perfect sense of the middle-grade novel. As gripping as the story becomes, it never strays into truly scary territory. There is a benevolence at work here, assuring us that things will probably work out for the best. And in Lucy Maud Montgomery fashion, what is dire is undone, leaving readers with a most satisfying resolution.