Each year I find I am breaking out from the books that I think I should be reading and trying something new. Although I read a fair bit of historical fiction I don’t often read collections of short stories which is why I was very happy to be asked to be a part of the Beautiful Star & Other Stories blog tour. This book is a fascinating collection of short historical tales by Andrew Swanston and each one is insightful and beautifully told.
History is brought alive by the people it affects, rather than those who created it. In Beautiful Star, we meet Eilmer, a monk in 1010 with Icarus-like dreams; Charles I, hiding in 1651, and befriended by a small boy; the trial of Jane Wenham, witch of Walkern, seen through the eyes of her granddaughter. This is a moving and affecting journey through time, bringing a new perspective to the defence of Corfe Castle, the battle of Waterloo, the siege of Toulon and, in the title story, the devastating dangers of the life of the sea in 1875.
The tales in this book are a mixture of fact and fiction but they reveal as much courage, cleverness and charm as the bigger stories we all know so well. I loved reading about the small events from history that show the bravery or quirks of real people. I didn’t expect to be so drawn in to them but right from the first one I couldn’t help but fall into the world and get swept away with the characters.
Each story is full of detail and heart but my favourite is Beautiful Star. This bittersweet tale, unexpectedly, brought me to tears as I was brought into the difficult world of a Fife fishing village in 1875. Our modern way of life couldn’t be further from these character’s and yet it was incredibly easy to empathise with their dreams, determination and sorrow. These stories are so vibrant that I can’t imagine ever forgetting the people so wonderfully brought to life in Beautiful Star and Other Stories.
The author has kindly written a short piece about the book which you can read below.
Where Do Stories Come From? – Andrew Swanston
‘Flowers’ says the narrator of Beautiful Star, Julia Paterson, to her friend Willy Miller, ‘are not wild or tame. They are just flowers.’ And so it is with stories. Long or short, they are just stories.
Mine are mixtures of fact and fiction, and of characters real and imaginary. Some are footnotes to history (The Button Seller and The Drummer Boy at the Battle of Waterloo, the fate of The Castle at Corfe during The War of the Three Kingdoms, The Tree, the solving of the problem of Longitude following the fate of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship, HMS Association), others stand on their own (The Flying Monk, A Witch and a Bitch) . Within the framework of historical events, they all seek to inform and to entertain.
Stories of course need characters and among those in these stories there are some remarkable ones. How much skill and courage did it take to sail an open-decked ‘fifie’ fishing boat, without navigational aids, from Fife to East Anglia and back in the stormy month of November? How much faith did a man need to jump off the top of Malmesbury Abbey wearing an untried pair of wings and without having any idea if he would fly or fall? What would make a humble seller of buttons risk his life by riding into the thick of battle to deliver a message from the Duke of Wellington? Why would a mother of twelve risk her own life and those of her children in a long, ultimately doomed defence of their family home?
It is from the actions of extraordinary people and the extraordinary actions of ordinary people that stories come. They are tales of courage and achievement, of failure and sacrifice, of hope and despair. A mother who loses, at one stroke, her husband, a son, two brothers, three nephews, a brother-in-law, and a cousin; a helpless old woman sentenced to death for witchcraft on trumped up evidence; a young boy who insisted on following his father into battle, only to see him die; the intrepid Benedictine monk who wanted to fly. These are their stories.
Eilmer, the monk, by the way, was very unusual for his time in seeing what we call Halley’s Comet twice – in 991 and 1066. Both sightings presaged great bloodshed – first from the Danes, then from the Normans. No wonder it was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure.
One of the joys of being an historical novelist is happening upon the seeds of a story. Another is researching it and, hopefully, moulding it into a finished article. The pleasure of picking the brains of experts, academics and local historians – all invariably helpful and encouraging – is an added perk.
Thank you to Dome Press for sending me a copy of Beautiful Star and Other Stories and to Andrew Swanston for this wonderful guest piece. Beautiful Star is available to buy now and you can follow both Dome Press and Andrew Swanston on Twitter.
You can also follow along with the blog tour for more reviews and information.