The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat

Readers always say they love fiction for escape, but I just don’t often feel the same way. This is a rare exception where I actually felt transported to another time and place — the New Forest of the 1600s during the English civil war. At that time the Roundheads, parliamentarian followers of Oliver Crowmell, were intent on destroying the ruling monarchy. The Cavaliers were loyal supporters of the crown.

The four children of Captain Beverley — Edward, Humphrey, Edith, and Alice — are taken into hiding following the tragic demise of their centuries-old familial estate destroyed in a fire caused by Roundhead arsonists. The Beverlies are Cavaliers who remain loyal to the king. Jacob Armitage, a competent verderer (royal forester), rescues the children and embeds them in the middle of the New Forest. They learn the life of a simple forest family and grow to be self-sufficient and enterprising in their new life. They hunt venison, capture wild cattle, start their own dairy, and run a household all on their own.

I love that this book touches on such themes as faith, personal nobility, integrity, and hard work, ideas that seem to be largely forgotten in our own times. No doubt modern critics have found plenty to criticize in the relics of a bygone era (issues about class, gender roles, race relations, etc.). But I find it refreshing to look for and find the good in books that have withstood the test of time. This book has much to say about kindness, compassion, honesty, and personal responsibility. It is one I will look forward to reading to my own children some day.

Having said all that, I am not convinced this should be characterized as children’s fiction unless that term is only used to signify children in the primary character roles. This was written during the first half of the 1800s in language that is clear and precise in an early Victorian sort of way, but is far from the casual and typically sophomoric lexicon found in modern children’s and young adult literature. It had plenty to keep this adult engaged, challenged, and entertained.

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