I read portions of hundreds of books every year, as part of the research for my own historical novels. I rarely review books because it wouldn’t be fair to the authors to rate or recommend their work after reading a few chapters or gleaning the info I needed. Flood, by Ann Swinfen, beat the odds because it was both great background information on culture and environment of the 17th century (my field of study), but it was beautifully constructed and a story well told. I read the entire book in only a few sittings.
Flood is a fictional story set in real events of the mid-1640s, the hostile takeover and destruction of centuries-old family farms and businesses located in England’s East Anglian fens, which are seasonal wetlands, rivers, canals, and saltwater/freshwater marshes. The rich and powerful believe themselves entitled to take livelihoods and lives in their pursuit of profit. And the people they come against will not be victims.
When Swinfen describes village customs or the extended-family relationships in a small village, she uses imagery that stimulates the senses: the stink of skinned eels, the unexpected delicacy of a wildflower, the trusting nuzzle of a dairy cow, the sharp dig and long-term cramps of torture restraints.
The author used the events surrounding the real Witchfinder General, who tortured and killed hundreds of innocent men and women in the 1640s. The protagonist and her friend were accused of witchcraft and Swinfen describes the experience of one who survived the testing and trials.
Read an article about the Fenland Riots, by Ann Swinfen,
The book’s action and romance began early, but they were both carefully paced. The conflict and drama steadily simmered to a boiling point—ironically, in freezing flood waters. The characters weren’t too holy or too evil, and weren’t predictable. I would have liked an unambiguous resolution or epilogue at the end of the book, but since real life is usually unresolved, I can draw my own conclusions, or research the end of the scheme for myself. (And I did.)
The genius of Swinfen’s 17th-century Flood story is that it so closely parallels the politics and economy of the 21st century. (I don’t think she intended that—the book is not a political thriller.) I compared yeoman farmers and small business owners, the “Adventurers” and the One Percent vulture capitalists, the rape of the environment (fens then and mineral or fuel mining now), the economically depressed villagers and the long-term unemployed, the soldiers who joined the military for one reason and were virtually enslaved for another reason, the corrupt courts, the politicians bought off by corporations and plutocrats, the marriage of religion and government causing oppression, protesters trying to take back a lifestyle and heritage stolen from them—why does this sound so familiar? But Swinfen’s fictional story in real events rings true four centuries later because although cultures change, people do not.
I bought the Kindle edition. But I wish I’d bought the book, which is more substantial in my opinion. Flood is a keeper. Highly recommended! (5/5 stars) Flood is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
The author has given me permission to share an excerpt from the first chapter. I chose this section for its descriptive prose. There are many other excellent scenes.
Flood, by Ann Swinfen
© 2014 Ann Swinfen, all rights reserved.
Excerpt by permission of author.
Barley was sown for beer and beans and peas for the pot. The medlands were filled with the carefree scamperings of the new lambs, while the young calves, one moment quietly following their mothers, would suddenly flick their tails in the air and gallop across the grass in joyous freedom of their youth, innocent of the heavy bodies and lumbering gait that would burden their mature years.
‘It will be the first of May next week, and soon after that Rogationtide,’ Gideon Clarke reminded my father, as they sat on a bench, leaning against the warm southern wall of our house and smoking their long pipes while I cleared weeds from my rows of onions and carrots.
‘And have the Puritans banned that too?’ Father asked.
‘No doubt. I have not heard. In any case, I mean to beat the bounds with all who will accompany me.’
‘We will come. The whole village.’ My father had no need to ask the rest of us. We had not missed the beating of the bounds even during the War.
I stood up, easing my back and dusting the soil from my hands.
‘And shall we have a Maying?’ I asked.
‘Fetching in the May, and a maypole, and a summer queen? Every bit. Would you be our queen, Mercy?’ Gideon was laughing and I blushed, with his eyes on me. For the last few years Alice had been the queen, but she was a married woman now.
‘That would be for the village to choose,’ I said with a fine show of modesty. ‘But I do think we should have a Maying. Beat the parish bounds to show that we are not afraid of these men who would steal our land. And hold a Maying to show we are not afraid of the godly Genevans who would put an end to all joy.’
‘The surveyors have been gone these three days.’ Tom had come out of the barn and joined us.
‘’Tis to be regretted. I would have liked to lift two fingers to them as we beat the bounds, but – surveyors or not – I agree that we should have both the Maying and the beating of the bounds. Let them think what they will.’ He did not say who he meant by ‘they’, but we understood him well enough.
Preparations went ahead swiftly. Before dawn on May Day, all the young people of the village went out to fetch in May blossom from the hedgerows, to deck our houses and the church. It was the first time in my whole life that I went without Alice, but I took our little Kitty with me. She was one of the village paupers, a church-door foundling, though it was whispered she belonged to Joseph Waters’s daughter, who had gone off, soon afterwards, with a travelling pedlar. Kitty had scrambled up, hand-to-mouth on parish charity, and had come to us, at eight years old, as general servant. She was eleven now. Not a stupid child, and willing. She had never been a-Maying before and skipped along at my side, her eyes bright with the excitement of a few hours away from washing greasy pots and muddy flagstones.
‘Is this what we want, mistress?’ She broke a cluster of whitethorn blossom from the branch and held it out to me.
‘Aye, but not like that. We need long stems so we can weave them round the pillars and altar rails in the church. But take care! The thorns are sharp.’
‘I remember last May.’ Her face glowed. ‘And we will have some for the master’s house too?’
I laughed. Kitty was in awe of Father. In her eyes our house belonged solely to him. The rest of the family counted for little.
‘We’ll gather plenty, then we can pin it up round the doors, and along the mantel.’
‘Can we put some over the barn door too? I know the beasts will love to celebrate May Day. Especially Blackthorn and Blaze.’
I smiled at the thought of the staid cow and our quiet gelding rejoicing in the Maying. ‘Aye, if we gather enough. We need sweet eglantine as well. There’s a hedge of it further along. And sops-in-wine.’
‘Is that a flower?’ She laughed. ‘I don’t know it.’
‘It grows in low clumps. A deep red flower with white patches. So it looks like red wine with sops floating in it, such as rich invalids are given.’
‘Like the bread sops we put in pottage?’
‘Aye, like that.’
The heady scents of spring followed us along the lane. The young people of the village, all those unmarried, had turned out every one. Parliament might try to ban our merry-making, but for this last year at least we would have our Maying. There must have been twenty of us, all who had grown up together within the boundaries of this parish, and later in the month we would follow Gideon with his cross and prayerbook, and beat the young children at the parish bounds, that they would know their land and their rights and never forget them.
From time to time some of our companions would pair off and slip away behind a hedge, for May is the time for courting. And if we heard squeals and laughter, we smiled and passed on along the lane. There would be new babes in the village, come the turn of the year, and perhaps a few hasty weddings beforehand. Though I was fond enough of the village boys I had known all my life, none could tempt me away to tumble in the young grass, despite hints and a few stolen kisses.
The lads were collecting supple young birch branches, just coming into leaf, which would provide a strong framework for our garlands and wreathes. Tom, with his friends Toby Ashford and Jack Sawyer, cut down a straight young beech to make our maypole, and carried it back between them to set up on the green, accompanied by the blowing of horns and beating of drums. While they dug a hole and set the maypole, firming it in with the edge of their boots, the rest of us decorated the church, winding the branches through the carved openings of the ancient altar rail, garlanding the font and pillars, and draping swags of blossom across the altar. By now the sun was fully up and we went home to decorate our doorways and eat our breakfasts. I gave Kitty the rest of the branches and flowers to swag the animals’ quarters, while I joined Tom in the kitchen for a hasty meal of porridge and ale. As we were eating, Gideon came in, his eyes lit with laughter.
‘So, it is to be your turn this year, Mercy. The village has chosen you our summer queen.’
He took my hand and kissed it, dropping on one knee. ‘Your humble servant, Your Majesty!’
I looked down at his thick curls and felt my breath catch in my throat. I feared he was merely humouring me, as he used to do when I did well in my lessons, but he held my hand tightly, and his lips lingered on my skin. Then he turned my hand over and kissed the palm, so that a shudder ran through me.
‘So many years in Alice’s shadow,’ I said, as lightly as I could. ‘At last I will lead the revels! I hope I will not disgrace the village.’
Gideon stood up, and released my hand slowly.
‘You will wear your crown with beauty and dignity,’ he said, looking at me intently.
I could not hold his gaze, but dropped my eyes and felt the heat of my skin burn from my neck to my hair.
Dr. Ann Swinfen (http://www.annswinfen.com) published three novels with Random House, but her three latest – The Testament of Mariam, Flood, and The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez – she has published herself under the imprint Shakenoak Press. Loving the whole independent publishing process, and the control it offers to authors, she thinks it unlikely she would ever return to conventional publishing. Some of her short stories which previously appeared in magazines and on BBC radio are now published on Kindle. She has also reissued her backlist titles as paperbacks and Kindles.