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The Dark Tower

by Sharon Stewart

Everyone has heard of Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated French queen who was beheaded during the Revolution. But few know of her daughter, Marie Thérèse, the only member of her family to survive the bloodshed and escape France after more than three years of imprisonment in a Paris tower. Set against the turbulence of the Revolution and its aftermath, this novel is her personal story written in the form of a journal covering the years 1789-95.

“Mousseline” (as her family calls her) is a rather awkward 11-year-old when the story begins. She lives the pampered life of a rich royal child. But all too soon the dangers of the Revolution intrude on her family’s life. They are forced to move from Versailles to a run-down palace in Paris. Her father, Louis XVI, makes concession after concession to the new National Assembly, but in the end his efforts at accommodation are fruitless. Mousseline and her family are imprisoned, and one by one her father, mother, and aunt are taken away to be executed. Only on her release is Mousseline informed that her little brother Charles also died, alone and uncared for in the dark room below hers.

This is a gripping and at times heart-rending story. Although politics is an ever-present force in the novel, Stewart wisely maintains her focus on Mousseline’s perspective throughout so that the anguish of the Revolution is always deeply personal. The narrative also resists easy categorization of the characters as “good guys” and “bad guys”; for instance, some of the jailers are depicted as kind and caring, and a series of letters from Sophie, a girl from a revolutionary family, provide a non-royalist perspective.

One might expect action to take precedence over characterization in such a novel, and in general it does. Mousseline is fairly well drawn, but most of the other characters are chiefly actors in the drama. And the book’s epilogue, narrated by an aged Mousseline to fill in the events after her release, seems anti-climactic. Nonetheless, these small flaws are unlikely to faze most young devotees of historical fiction, who will be turning the pages long past bedtime.