Monday, February 8, 2010


I learned about "A Brief History of Montmaray" in a blog post by Loretta at "Pomegranantes and Paper". It sounded really good so I looked for it at my local library. I was surprised to find it in the teen section. This wasn't the library's doing, I later learned. It is classified everywhere as  teen literature. But although it has a teenage narrator it is not a teen book any more than is "The Diary of Anne Frank".

In a lot of ways, it brought to mind a comparison with "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith, a book I and my book club loved, for Montmaray also features a crumbling castle and eccentric inhabitants.

Montmaray is a (fictional) small island, basically a great rock topped by a castle, located in the Bay of Biscayne west of France, north of Spain and southwest of Great Britain. In 1936, it is home to the FitzOzborne family and only two others, the Smiths and the Spensers. The population was greatly reduced after the turn of the century, many of its young men having been killed in the Great War and other residents returning to Cornwall, home of their ancestors.

The FitzOzbornes, though impoverished, are the royal family of the island. They are descendants of (then) Baron Bartholomew FitzOzborne who was forced to flee his Cornish estate in 1542, sailed south, tangled with a sea monster for a day and a night, defeated it valiantly, and then washed up on the shore of an uninhabited island halfway between France and Spain. He then declared the island to be a new kingdom, which he called Montmaray.

Montmaray, despite its tiny size, is a sovereign state, recognized by Britain, France and Spain. Although ownership of such a tiny kingdom might seem a joke to others, the FitzOsbornes take themselves very seriously (although not snobbishly) and consider themselves equal to other European royalty. However, they are basically isolated and cut off from the world. Usually their only outside contact is with passing ships, but the Civil War in Spain has greatly reduced travel in that part of the Atlantic. 

The FitzOzborne household consists of:

1. "One middle-age man of indifferent health and intermittent insanity. {King John}.
2. One middle-age housekeeper {Rebecca Chester}, who prefers not to housekeep too much as it interferes with the worship of the man previously mentioned.
3. Two young ladies not turned 18, neither of whom can cook very well, although between them they have adequate skills in the areas of bookkeeping, plumbing, dusting, historical research, laundering, and storytelling. {Narrator Sophia and family historian Veronica, who is Sophia's cousin and daughter of King John}.
4. One 10-year-old tomboy, able to fish, swear and trap rabbits, but unable to write, make her own bed, or remember to brush her teeth. {Sophia's little sister Henrietta, or Henry}.
5. One dog, several mad cats, numerous chickens, half a dozen pigeons, and far too many rats."

King John's wife Isabella apparently hied herself off to the mainland years ago, and Sophia and Henry's parents are dead. Their older brother Toby and Rebecca's son Simon Chester are away in England, although they do return for occasional visits.  

Sophia and Veronica, with help from Toby and Simon, try to keep up with world affairs. None of the four is quite sure whom to root for in the Spanish Civil War, the Nazis or the Fascists. (Being royal themselves, they would actually prefer that the Spanish royal family be returned to the throne, but the  royals had been ousted in the democratic elections of 1931.)

However, the FitzOsbornes' feelings regarding the Nazis are soon solidified. Toby and Simon have returned to England when the rest of the family discovers that two German soldiers (Nazis, Veronica is sure) have "invaded" their island, supposedly in search of the Holy Grail. A break-in at the castle leads to the disappearance of one of the Germans and the death of King John. After Toby and Simon return to Montmaray for the king's funeral, the Germans viciously attack the island.

The family's efforts to save themselves from the Germans make for a gripping, harrowing adventure. Luckily, Sophia and Veronica are both quick-witted, plucky girls who rise to the occasion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the (mostly) charming Montmoravians, except for a few niggling questions. It is never revealed what the soldiers were actually looking for on Montmaray, or why the Germans retaliated so violently, seeing as how the one soldier's disappearance was not proven to be foul play, nor even that he was dead. There is also a small hint that Simon and Toby might be homosexual lovers, but as soon as the subject is broached it is as quickly dropped.

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