(Note: This will contain spoilers!)
Ok, I'm being a little snarky with that title. Forged in the Fire is the sequel to No Shame, No Fear (see my entry for January 19). The romance between Susanna and Will that begins in No Shame picks up again -- after three years of letter-writing between Susanna (still in Hemsbury) and Will, who has gone to London to try to find work after being disowned by his father. And I must admit -- Will and Susanna aren't the only ones who come away from this story satisfied; when I finished it last night (after devouring it in less than 24 hours), I felt that it was just right -- a delightful historical romance, worthy of sitting on the same shelf with something like The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
I thought No Shame, No Fear was Susanna's story, even though Will tells half of it and much of the plot centers around the conflict with his father that Will faces after deciding he will be a Quaker. Forged in the Fire is Will's story, at least for the first half of the book. He is in London, which in 1665 is on the verge of major historical events. Turnbull does very well in winding her plot through those events, making them personal through Will. He suffers brutal treatment in prison for being a "Dissenter"; he loses his employment (and therefore his prospects for providing for Susanna as his wife) because of plague; a year later, his home and livelihood are burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London.
Against these momentous events, the relationship between Will and Susanna plays out, more important in their perspective than anything else that happens -- and isn't that realistic? Despite what's going on in the world, the thing that most concerns us is what's going on in our own small lives. They've been corresponding for three years through letters that take weeks to travel from one to the other, staying faithful to their promise to be true to each other, planning their marriage as soon as Will is set up well enough to provide a suitable home. All that is thrown into question when Susanna unexpectedly comes to London and sees Will in a situation that makes her doubt their relationship can actually work. They are estranged for some weeks, only to be reconciled by a noble and unselfish act on the part of their common friend, Nat Lacon. (More about him in a minute.)
The only thing that disappointed me a little was a lost opportunity. Turnbull did such a good job in No Shame of portraying Susanna's "moment of faith" -- the point at which she realized she did have the strength to be true to her faith and to do the right thing, even if it was painful. It was one of my favorite parts of the book. Turnbull sets Will up for something similar -- and then doesn't deliver, because of the demands of the romance, I guess. But here's what I wish she had done: when Will is sent to prison (not for the first time, by the way), he admits the gate of the prison "always filled me with dread." He suffers horribly in the prison, and he knows he's not "made of the stuff of martyrs." He nearly dies, but a wealthy Friend rescues him and nurses him back to health. This man just happens to have a lovely daughter near Will's age, a daughter who is not yet committed to being Quaker. She has just been to visit cousins who are still Anglican, and she says going to church is "easier" than being a Quaker. I think here would have been a good opportunity to have Will face the temptation of an easier life, one free from persecution and fear -- but -- it's the author's choice. And I'm not dissatisfied with her choice.
I do feel sort of bad for poor Nat, though. He's that secondary character who gets stuck in the role of making things work out for others. Oh, Turnbull sort of throws him a bone at the end, but that's exactly what it seemed like -- a convenient "let's make sure Nat has someone, too." I feel like he deserved better.
Can you tell these characters came to life on the page for me??
I want to add these additional thoughts about this book that came from a discussion I had with someone in a different context (I was recommending the book for a teen reader):
I recently read a pair of books by Ann Turnbull set in 17th century London -- No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire. The story is set in England, and the historical element is the persecution of Quakers and then the dramatic events of 1665-66 in London (the plague and the Great Fire). The main story, however, focuses on the relationship between an Anglican boy and a Quaker girl. The first book, I thought, did very well with portraying infatuation -- in the end, however, the characters make a mature decision to postpone a quick marriage. The second book picks up after three years of waiting for each other and keeping their relationship alive by letters. There is a brief "coming together" scene that I thought was handled tastefully and that is followed immediately by the young man's determination to carry out his responsibility to provide for his wife-to-be. Although the physical element of their attraction to each other is a part of the story, the characters always view that element in relationship to other parts of life, like religion and economics, and I think that is a good example for young people. After all, sex is part of life, but it doesn't rule life -- which is not the message teens get from so many media sources.