May’s Big Picture
The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Prequels don’t get a lot of respect. And while it’s true that they’re too often tacked- on brand extension, sometimes they’re revealing and satisfying origin stories, and occasionally they even spin a tale that’s gripping in its own right and that adds deep and important notes to the original work. So it is with this prequel to Code Name Verity (BCCB 6/12).
Julie (more properly Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart) is fifteen, spending her summer as usual at Strathfearn, the Scottish estate of her grandfather the earl. This year, however, her grandfather has died and the family is taking the summer to pack up and inventory the estate before the new owners, the Glenfearn School, take possession. When someone bashes Julie in the head and leaves her with the local Scottish Travellers to throw the blame onto them, and the visiting scholar helping with the estate disappears, it’s clear that something nefarious is afoot. Helped by Ellen and Euen, her Scottish Traveller friends, Julie tries to find answers and begins to realize the events may be linked to her grandfather’s box of rare Scottish river pearls—a box that’s now missing.
As a standalone story, this is a solid period tale with fascinating detail; Wein writes with brisk wit, and she’s sharply perceptive about the social strata of 1938 Britain, from the fierce anti-Traveller prejudice to the status of an earl’s grand- daughter whose family now has more position than cash. (An author’s note dips more deeply into the social history of the Scottish Travellers and into facts about Scottish river pearls, while a list of books and websites gives curious readers more to explore.) Even without knowledge of the previous book, it’s Julie’s character that’s the real draw here: she’s sometimes a coquette, sometimes a hoyden, increasingly aware of her privilege and conscious of both its unfairness and the leverage it offers her, and she revels in the thrill of flirting, literally and figuratively, with risk (“I would like to be a theatrical escape artist, I think, like Houdini. . . . I want to dazzle people and be applauded for it”).
There’s a lot of interesting flirting too, as she passes herself off as seven- teen and deliberately fascinates the adult male contractor on the school project, and as she explores her crush on Ellen. In fact there’s a lot of gender-performative play throughout (she even names her behavior explicitly as “Being a Girl” at one point), with Julie sometimes passing/perceived as male and enjoying a theatrical visit involving a transvestite performer. However, identities shift across many categories throughout the book, as people by choice or perception veer between class, age, and other roles (for example, Julie, who grew up around Travellers, is mistaken for one several times).
Familiarity with Code Name Verity takes these intriguing explorations and makes them riveting. Julie is simultaneously a delight to know and a constantly conscious player of the human game, “looking for things that other people haven’t noticed and then trying to fit them together, like jigsaw pieces” but then manipulating them more like chess pieces. It’s all done in a way that’s perfectly plausible for an upper-class ’30s teen with an enviable amount of liberty, but it also hauntingly foreshadows her character in Verity (and even reveals the source of her nickname of “Queenie”). Verity fans will find this irresistible and return to a reread of that title with this new backstory in mind, while fans of period drama such as Cooper’s A Brief History of Montmaray (BCCB 11/09) will appreciate this as an absorbing read that leads them inexorably to the next book. (See p. 431 for publication information.)
Deborah Stevenson, Editor