Bloomsbury Press, 2009
I came across Troubadour quite unexpectedly. I was in the local library, as is my habit at certain times, to see what might be there that would make good, entertaining reading, I had never really paid much attention to Mary Hoffman, the author, though I have seen some of her work – Young Adult-type books set in a sort of “alternate” Renaissance Italy, based on some visits to Florence that she’d made earlier. Troubadour looked interesting, but I didn’t pay much attention to it in the bookstore, either.
However, when I came across the book in the library, I did pay attention. It’s not often you see a book aimed at “young adults” that the library staff feels adults might enjoy. And they were right; I enjoyed it very much. I knew next to nothing about the Cathars, or the “crusade” against them, mainly motivated, apparently, by the desire of the king of France to gain more control over southern France, and the desire of a number of his vassals(many of whom were semi-independent), to grab more land. The “crusade” itself was long and bloody, but the Cathars were finally crushed.
Judging by the way the book is put together, and considering the audience the book is aimed at, Ms. Hoffman does a very good job of pulling a complex time, place, and set of characters together, while not appearing to be preaching a “history lesson”. Her principal focus is on a young girl of marriageable age, named Elinor. Her parents, or at least her mother, are very worried about her seemingly wild ways, and her mother decides this can be cured by getting her married off to a much older man with children of his own. Part of this reason has to do with the dark clouds on the political horizon, which eventually led to the so'-called “Albigensian” crusade, which resulted in terrible bloodshed against the “heretics” known as Cathars(though they themselves apparently never used this term calling themselves “Good People”). As the story develops, it becomes apparent that she and her family are in danger, because her father is a secret Cathar, and it also turns out that this is one of the reasons her parents are so anxious to get her married off.
However, Elinor has no intention of marrying the man chosen for her, although women in Southern France at this time had considerable freedoms of their own. They could inherit property, and prospective husbands had to pay a bride price for them, rather than having property in the form of a dowry passed to them. Furthermore, there were apparently some quite strong and competent women in this region at the time. Be this as it may, Elinor manages to run away, disguised as a boy, and joins a troupe of what Hoffman calls joglars, basically entertainers of both sexes. She has a nice voice, and is allowed to sing some troubadour compositions(Troubabours composed the verses, and they were usually of higher rank than the entertaiiners; they didn’t have to sing). She is particularly interested in one troubadour called Bertran, who also turns out to be a secret Cathar, and because he has taken certain vows, can’t marry anyone, let alone the impressionable young Elinor.
Basically a “coming of age” story set in a very turbulent time and place, the story focuses on what Elinor learns about herself and others, and her realization of who she is really meant to be. This book is full of adventure, and there are some terrible and sad parts, but they are never overdone. Without entering a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the story does end happily for Elinor, though in the time period she is “on the road” and away from home, she matures into a very wise young woman. While this story may be a little “lightweight” for some adults who prefer more “serious” stuff, fans of historical fiction, of any age, should enjoy it. I certainly did, and I’d like to see more in this vein out of Ms. Hoffman.Anne G