Theresa Tomlinson: The Forestwife / Child of the May

Laurie Thayer wrote this review which I believe ran on Mostly Folk.
 
In the early years of this decade, Robin Hood and his Merry Men enjoyed something of a renaissance. For a time, there was a spate of Robin Hood related material, including Parke Godwin’s novel Sherwood and Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. In 1992, theatres saw the release of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, preceded by the television premiere of Patrick Bergin’s slightly more realistic Robin Hood. PBS ran and reran Richard Carpenter’s highly popular television series Robin of Sherwood, and in 1993, Theresa Tomlinson’s The Forestwife, a Young Adult novel, quietly appeared.

The hero of The Forestwife is not Robin, but fifteen-year-old Mary de Holt, born a bastard, whose mother died during childbirth. She was taken in by her uncle, the lord of Holt Manor, and given to a nurse to be raised. On the day she is informed that she is to be wed to a man much older than she, out of the manor she slips and makes her way into the forest, eventually reaching the Barnesdale Wastes. The only person she regrets leaving behind is her old, senile nurse Agnes. Not long after her journey begins, however, whom should she meet in the forest but her old Agnes, suddenly sharp and decisive. It is rumored that Agnes’ son Robert is an outlaw who killed his uncle and then escaped into the forest.

Once in the forest, Mary’s life changes completely, for Agnes becomes the Forestwife, a woman dedicated to help any who approach her forest hut in need. Mary, her name changed to Marian, becomes her apprentice. It is a difficult life, but Marian finds it far superior to the life her uncle had planned for her.

Eventually, of course, she does meet Agnes’ son Robert, who is not at all what she had expected. He is not yet as famous as later legend will make him — and she hates him almost immediately. To tell any more would be to give away the story. Suffice it to say that eventually Marian and Robert become friends and find their destinies, but it is not an easy road.

The Forestwife is a story about the rather neglected character of Maid Marian, and Tomlinson gives us a strong Marian, not the weeping maid content to wait in a castle and be rescued. From organizing nuns and children to hunt deer in Sherwood to rescuing prisoners, Marian is as brave as any man. The story only lightly follows the traditional Robin Hood tales, but since the story is not really about Robin anyway, that doesn’t matter.

The sequel, Child of the May, takes place some fifteen years later. Marian is now the Forestwife of Barnesdale; she is also the foster mother of Magda, Little John’s daughter. Magda longs for adventure, to see beyond the bounds of the forest where she has spent most of her life in what she perceives as drudgery, apprenticed to Marian. When her father and Robert, who has become the legendary Hooded Man, decide to venture to Nottingham to rescue their neighbors Lady Matilda and Lady Isabel, Magda begs to be included in the adventure.

Nottingham is exciting and dangerous, but Magda finds her heart returning to the forest and a certain young man there, though she cannot figure out why he so occupies her thoughts. Life continues as before in the Forestwife’s clearing until the news comes that mercenaries have taken Lady Matilda and Lady Isabel prisoner in their own home. Magda once more takes up her bow to help Marian rescue the captives.

The mark of a good children’s book is that children adore it and remember it when they are grown. The mark of a great children’s book is that someone could pick it up for the first time as an adult and still get the same enjoyment out of it. By that reasoning, both The Forestwife and Child of the May are great children’s books. They are an excellent addition to the growing body of Robin Hood lore.

(Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, 1993)
(Orchard Books, 1998) 

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