Rebecca Mascull’s third novel reads like an adventure story for girls. And I mean that in a good way.We all need more adventure in our lives sometimes.
Della Dobbs is unremarkable as a youngster, shy and lacking in confidence. But she is inspired by her Auntie Betty, who has been in Carolina where early aviators, the Wright Brothers, were taking to the skies. Using kites to explain aerodynamics and design, Betty gradually cultivates in Della a desire to fly actual planes. Unheard of for a woman in the early 20th Century, but the determined young woman achieves her ambition. She earns a reputation as a respected competition and exhibition pilot. But when the Great War breaks out, she decides to put her flying skills to a far more important test, flying solo across the Channel on a daring rescue mission.
This would be a perfect place to introduce some lovely flight-themed metaphors, about how the plot of this book rises and soars, dips and yaws to keep the reader flying high. How the heroine handles the controls of the plot with perfect ease, rising with the thermals and coping with the turbulence which marks her early romantic connections. But that would be too cheesy. Suffice to say that Della is a credible protagonist, yelling at her Dad, falling in love, following her dreams and making her mark, all in a cleverly understated way. She’s ballsy, but not brash. I liked Della a lot.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the London launch of ‘The Wild Air‘ last year and heard the author speak about her research and sources for the book. She had been taken up in the kind of early plane described in the novel, and was able to describe the mixture of excitement and fear which shines through in all of Della’s flights. She manages to achieve the right balance between enough technical detail to allow the reader to understand the basic mechanics of the plane and flying it, and the story line. This isn’t a Haynes manual.
In 2015 I championed Mascull’s second novel ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘. Although I probably slightly preferred it to ‘The Wild Air‘, the common themes of pioneering, feisty women making their way in a male-dominated world, make both of these works highly readable. I look forward to Rebecca’s next book.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by the life of Helen Keller, an American deafblind woman whose world was transformed by the patience and techniques of her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan literally unlocked Helen’s world, enabling her pupil to flourish: Keller was the first deafblind person to achieve a BA and she went on to become a renowned author. It is an amazing story.
Rebecca Mascull’s ‘The Visitors‘ deals with a similar theme, as Adeliza (Liza) Golding is trapped in a world of blackness and silence. She can see something, but the vague apparitions seem somehow unrelated to Liza’s daily struggles. Her life changes when her father engages Lottie, a hop-picker, to help draw his daughter out of her lonely world. Using simple sign language initially, Lottie gives Liza the tools to communicate.
What is particularly clever about Mascull’s writing is the way in which the construct and complexity of the narrative develop in line with Liza’s gradual acquisition of language. The reader goes with her on a journey into an ever-expanding world, leading Liza eventually to the Boer War. Her evolution from a frustrated, lonely young child into a self-assured but, more importantly, equal young woman, is an inspiring read.
‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ by the same author was one of my favourite books of last year. I was impressed by the strong female characters, the historical detail and unusual plot and it was the same with ‘The Visitors‘. This novel actually has some roots in Mascull’s own family background. I don’t think Becca Mascull gets the exposure she deserves – I rate her alongside Tracy Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. Certainly worth a try if you like your historical fiction with a twist!
Personally, I am not a big fan of fridge magnets with twee mottos, but there is one I do like. It says: “Well behaved women never made the history books“. If Dawnay Price, the protagonist of Rebecca Mascull’s second novel had been a real person, she would definitely have made the history books. In fact, she would probably have been writing them.
Dawnay (there is an explanation for her odd name, but I won’t spoil it) has a rotten start in life in mid-18thC London. A homeless ragamuffin, she lives a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets until a chance encounter sees her taken in by an orphanage. Once there, the young foundling risks being despatched to the workhouse by secretly teaching herself to read and write. Her efforts do not go unrewarded as when local benefactor Mr Woods agrees to educate a child, Dawnay is chosen. Under the dedicated tutelage of Mr Applebee, the naturally gifted Dawnay thrives. Intelligent, curious and determined, she is drawn to the wonders of the natural world and resolves to travel abroad in order to explore and develop some of her ideas about the origins of life, amongst other things. Achieving her ambition to see beyond the shores of Britain, Dawnay secures a passage to a small group of Portugese islands known as the Berlengas. A passionate love affair, natural disasters and the risk of being ostracised by polite society do not deter Dawnay from her chosen path as an explorer, scientist, philosopher and writer.
Firmly rooted in history, but not at all dense, this is an absorbing read. Dawnay reminded me just how much we take for granted in the West, including women’s education, free speech and some semblance of equal rights (although we still have a way to go!). Unfettered by social conventions, which were extremely rigid in the 1750s, she forges her own path in life. Her ideas are heretical yet she refuses to be subdued. This book is a testament to self-belief, intellect and hard work. With Tim Hunt’s comments about #distractinglysexy women in laboratories recently, ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ explores some extremely topical themes.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this book; it is published today by Hodder & Stoughton. Although not a YA book per se, it would make a fantastic gift for any young female who is struggling with identity and finding her place in the world. ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘ is a positive affirmation of what it is to be sexy and smart; the two are not mutually exclusive.