Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Me and Marie Antoinette

Sometimes you pick up a book that seems to fit you like a glove. How many girls over the last fifty years have picked up Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, for example, and identified completely with the smart, acerbic, and sometimes unlucky heroine?

As unlikely as it may be, I got that ‘fits like a glove feeling’ from Waiting for the Queen by Joanna Higgins (Milkweed Editions, 2013). This middle-grade novel looks back at the escape of French aristocrats to rural Pennsylvania at the time of the French Revolution.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s painting Marie-Antoinette dit “à la Rose,” Palace of Versailles, France
In the late 1790s, boatloads of bejeweled and brightly dressed French nobles fled France and the guillotine. They hoped to build a new France—and a refuge for their queen, Marie Antoinette—in the American wilderness.

Higgins focuses on two girls: Status-conscious Eugenie de La Roque has seen horrors before escaping France with her family. Practical, egalitarian-minded Hannah Kimbrell is a young Quaker cook and maid. Her father and brother have been hired to build the new French town in the woods along the Susquehanna River.

The clash of cultures is well-drawn, and the gradually developing friendship between the two girls is believable and warm. Although the author relies over-much on having characters deliver speeches toward the end, the book still deserves its spot on Mary Ann Grossman’s Pioneer Press Top Ten list of 2013.

So, how does Waiting for the Queen fit this reader like a glove?

French Azilum Methodist Church, PA. Photo by Carol Manuel.
My parents were married in the small white church in French Azilum, PA—the site of that long-lost town of French aristocrats waiting for Marie Antoinette, who for now obvious reasons never arrived.

“Frenchtown,” as we call it, is where my mother spent summers, and where I’ve gone for family reunions over the years.

The other part of Waiting for the Queen that struck a chord was the Kimbrell family. As Quakers, Hannah and her brother and father use thee and thou. They speak “plain,” just as my own Quaker grandparents did.

But to enjoy this novel, you don’t need to speak plain or spend summers on the Susquehanna. You just need to let author Joanna Higgins lead you back into the past, just around a bend in the river, to a place where everyone is waiting for the queen.

1 comment:

  1. I just may have to get a copy of this book, though I am long past young adulthood! Thanks, Cousin Gwenyth!