Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Children's Book Critique: Beorn the Proud

Book Title: Beorn the Proud

Author: Madeleine Polland

Publisher: Bethlehem Books, 1999 and 2001

When I was about thirteen years old, I studied the Vikings. We home-schooled throughout my childhood and one of the highlights of the year was the annual “Science and Project Fair” that the home-school organization put on. The year I was thirteen, we created a big project display about the Vikings complete with costumes, runes, and a model Viking ship.

To get in the spirit of things, my mother decided that she and I would read Beorn the Proud by Madeleine Polland. We would alternate reading chapters while snuggling on her big, warm, fluffy bed. This book, nourished by the memories of the way it was presented to me, stands out in my mind as one of my favorite pieces of Children’s Literature.

Beorn the Proud is the story about a young Irish girl, Ness, whose village was raided by the Vikings and her family killed. While hiding from the Vikings, she is captured by Beorn, a feisty Viking boy who introduces himself as Beorn, “the son of Anlaf the Sea King.” Beorn claims Ness as his slave and drags her onto his father’s ship where she sails through raids with him and watches the curious ways of the Viking people. During her voyage with Beorn they begin to understand each other and though Ness swears she shall never belong to Beorn, she begins to take liking to him and tries to preach the Gospel to him, despite what he and his people had done to her family and village.

There are many elements that drew me into the story and kept me rooting for Ness including interesting dialogue and unexpected insights.

“Speech reveals character.” When dialogue is used properly the characters in the story show their true colors. Accents, speech patterns, even the tone in which they speak reveals if the character is agreeable or difficult, serious or fun-loving, and even whether they are rich or poor. The dialogue in Beorn the Proud provides the reader with accurate description of the character’s attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs. Beorn’s character is especially vocally expressive. Through the many times Beorn uses “by the great Hammer of Thor,” we can be sure of his belief in the Norse religion. Beorn’s attitudes as well as the words he speaks are almost always done so out of pride. He even admits to pride, and shows his difference in thought process when he bids Ness to “be proud to belong to Beorn the Sea King’s son. I am proud to be Beorn.” He demonstrates the pride he takes in his family by tying his name to his father’s title so many times. He even barks out orders to Ness as if he thought he truly was her master. “You will tell me,” “You will get out,” “You will come,” and the most shocking to Ness, “you shall be mine.” Beorn’s proud words often got him in trouble, proving him to be a foolish youth and not a wise King as Beorn so longed to be. At one time, Beorn’s pride moved him to challenge a great man to a swimming contest in icy cold water. Beorn won, but later that same man banishes Beorn and his company from the lands of Denmark.

Rich dialogue isn’t the only noteworthy thing in Beorn the Proud; it is filled with unexpected insights. These small, eye-opening surprises fill a book with secrets and make the reader long to read more, making the reader search for clues about the secret lives of the characters. In Beorn the Proud readers are not disappointed when they look for unexpected insights. Throughout the developing relationship between Ness and Beorn, small acts of kindness shine through. The character’s normal actions are put aside during these moments, and a new, and wiser, part of them shines through into their choices.

Perhaps one of the most touching insights happens early in the book, when the Vikings are splitting their spoils from Ness’s village. Ness happens to see some treasures that she recognizes from her house including the necklace her mother would always wear. Overwhelmed with grief, Ness throws herself at the Vikings and shouts at them, calling them thieves, robbers, and murderers. The Vikings push her away and the more she thinks of her mother the more emotional she gets until, eventually, Ness cries herself to sleep, moaning “I saw my mother’s cross,”

When she wakes, Beorn tells her how the ships are getting ready to sail and that she is to come along with them. When she refuses, he tells her “You will come. And you may keep this.” And he gives Ness her mother’s necklace.

This small act of kindness gives the readers a small hint at a secret Beorn hidden beneath the proud boy; the Beorn who would be a kind ruler, understanding his people’s needs.

Another unexpected insight between Beorn and Ness happens a little bit later in the story, when Beorn’s father, the Sea King, dies of a wound from a raid, and Beorn goes ashore to find a sacrifice for Anlaf to help him in the afterlife. Beorn, of course, takes Ness with him and soon finds a cow to sacrifice. In his excitement, Beorn hands Ness a knife and she lifts it, ready to strike Beorn down to gain her revenge and freedom. Instead of killing him, though, she lowers the knife and gives it back to Beorn.

Although Ness wanted her freedom and vengeance for her slain family, she has a secret self that will not let her kill anyone. This secret side of Ness, also, might have started caring for Beorn.

Although the dialogue that Beorn speaks reveals himself to be proud and boastful, the insights that the author, Madeleine Polland, unexpectedly throws into the story hints at a character who will one day be a great, kind king of the Vikings; perhaps with a wise and gentle Irish queen beside him.

Beorn the Proud had a great impact on me because of the rich, descriptive dialogue and the unexpected insights that kept me guessing until the end. The end was no failure, either, and by the time I got to it I was grinning broadly and squealing for joy at the characters grand finale!

I would highly recommend this book to anyone between the ages of ten and one hundred and I guarantee that, once they appear, I will be reading this book with my children, just as my mother read Beorn the Proud with me.

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