Thursday, April 21, 2016

Napoleon, Betsy, & Australia

One of the beauties of a literature rich education is that we experience far more books then we might otherwise. When we see book list full of the top 100/50/20 books a child should read, chances are usually very high that we've read more then 90% of the books all ready.

This past year I spent a lot of time pre-reading many of the books our eldest would be using with Bookshark 7. One I was particularly keen to read is Betsy & The Emperor. I ended up dragging up an e-copy while waiting on our hard copy to arrive, that's how desperate I was to read it.

However, as I began reading the book I was a little surprised with some of the choices the author made for her characters. Now, as a writer, I know that at times our hands are tied. Sometimes characters take on a mind of their own, especially if those characters are based on real people who accomplished great things in life & leaving that epic moment out would be unthinkable.

The problem I had with the book was a little different though. The story takes place on St Helena & begins the night of Napoleon's arrival. The island is thrown askew with the preparations of the great warlord coming their way. Betsy is a young girl home from boarding school, where she'd been sent in hopes that she'd learn to behave more like a lady then a fool hardy young child.

It's quick to see in the first chapter that Betsy's refining at the school failed her as she climbs out the bedroom window in her nightgown & makes the mile plus trek down to the wharfs to find out what the hubbub on the island is all about. It's honestly a very captivating start to the story & pulls you in wanting more, but it quickly goes downhill in a direction I felt deeply uncomfortable with.

Throughout the story Betsy's friendship with Napoleon is a lot more then just a friendship. I found that deeply distressing that the author would write Napoleon in a way that depicted him as little more then a child predator. He constantly lures Betsy to spend time with him instead of with her family. He tells her they won't miss her & that eating one more meal with him will be no loss to them. He convinces her to help him escape the island, not once but twice. Napoleon & Betsy are often allowed to go off galavanting around the island, on horseback, alone. That is until they catch on that there is an escape plan. At which point there is a soldier with them, but Napoleon constantly convinces Betsy to help him "lose" the babysitter so they can be alone.

In one scene she's standing on his front porch holding up her lovely new ball gown & he rips it away from her in a fit of childlike jealousy & dashes up to his bedroom where he closes & locks the door giggling away like a schoolboy. Betsy is left outside the door pleading for her gown back before she finally goes home. Napoleon eventually returns the dress, with extra jewelry, & it suddenly appears on Betsy's bed with a note signed in a special pet name she gave him.

Napoleon is constantly sitting on his front porch watching her. He's jealous of the young army man who has taken a keen interest in the young Betsy & Napoleon isn't afraid to show his contempt about it either.

These are hard things to overlook because they take up much time & space in the book. Further there are incidents in the book where a couple of the young ladies have had supposed martial type relations with other young men, in some cases many men, despite being unmarried. One such girl, Betsy's own sister, collapses on a heap on the floor one night because she was convinced the man would marry her & now feels betrayed & used.

Needless to say my contempt with the book, as a parent, was pretty high & I was greatly dissapointed in the book, the way the characters were portrayed, & further that curriculum we use chose to pick this book as great literature for my child to read. Even crazier there are warnings in my parent guide about the book, which you might think have to do with the incidents above, but they do not. Not at all.

Rather there is a warning that sticking your head in a chimney is unwise for various reasons & that snooping on conversations isn't polite. Taken out of context that sounds insane, but in one scene Betsy had her head up a chimney listening in on her parent's conversation. The guide is right, these things are foolish for a child to try, but so is the idea that a grown man would so deeply befriend a young girl in such a way.

While sharing my concerns about the story with a couple of other Mamma's who are using the same curriculum we are, the topic of another book came up. The book, in the USA, has the same title as the book I'm complaining about: Betsy & The Emperor. However, in the UK the book is titled, The Emperor's Shadow

While I haven't read this book yet & can't attest to it's value, or lack thereof, I will say that the article I read about the book really captivated me in that it discusses the Balcombe's time on St Helena, but equally the disgrace they faced at failing {Napoleon's attempted escape & the lack of control they had over him}. It discusses the disgrace they remained in upon returning to England, & then being sent to Australia.  And that, the sentence about Australia, is the reason I made the purchase.

Having children who are both Australian & American means we try to hit on all the cultures in our studies, to look at things from more then one angle & get a view of how each country was handling things at different times. What a beautiful way to do so with this book!

The Emperor's Shadow is non-fiction, all though the reviews said it reads much like a fictional writing in that it's simple & quick to read leaving you wanting more. So while it won't entirely fill the shoes of the former book, we're quite excited to see what lays inside.

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