Knight's Fee, by Rosemary Sutcliff. First published 1960
Here I am again, reviewing a book written before I was born. This book was another of my finds via 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. [NB: I continue to assume that I am not yet grown up, let alone old, despite evidence suggesting otherwise]. I find that I have read many of the more recent books suggested there, at least ones of the sort that interest me, because I have been working at the library for over ten years, and tend to read books as they come in to the library. Many others I read in my childhood. But the local library was small when I was a kid, and options were limited. Knight's Fee is another of those that I never saw when I was young.
Knight's Fee is set a scant generation after the Norman Conquest of England (1066, for any of you who haven't reached that point in your history classes yet). Randal, the protagonist, is the orphaned child of a Breton soldier and Saxon (i.e local) woman. He has no family nor is he of anything like noble blood. But by a series of chances, at age 10 he is taken from his job as dog boy and becomes the companion of Bevis d'Aguillon, Norman heir of a small English manor.
Randal's rise from lowest of the low to varlet (I think I would have said "page") and then Squire would be unbelievable, except that Sutcliff somehow makes it both inevitable and yet clearly a matter of great chance, a bit of luck the boy never forgets. Nor does Sufcliff hold back on the foreshadowing. From his first arrival at the holding of Dean (the d'Aguillon home), his sense of coming home is coupled with a sense of inevitable loss. We know this isn't going to end well for everyone.
Nor is Randal very old before a chance over-hearing leads him to make an enemy whose prediction--that he "one day will weep blood for this"--is kept close to the reader's mind as events unfold. Randal grows and becomes a squire; Bevis becomes a knight, as Randal, being poor and landless, cannot.
The conclusion is no surprise, but it is not disappointing. How Randal rises to meet each challenge, how he faces loss and gain, is really what makes the book. He could continue to always be a kennel-slave who happened to get away from it. But instead he truly becomes the knight and the lord when it is thrust upon him.
The style of the book is, as expected from something written more than 50 years ago, a bit dated. It won't read to a modern kid like they are used to (though I have trouble putting my finger on the difference--something of tone and style), and you don't end up as far inside Randal's head as we are accustomed to do with characters today. But for all that, the story is very satisfying, and presents a period of history, its people and politics, in a well-researched manner without ever seeming to be anything but a good story. Writing and editing are top-notch, and vocabulary does not talk down to the young reader.