"Charis in the World of Wonder" by Marly Youmans, Ignatius, 331 pages
Early one May morning in 1690, before daylight, young Charis is awakened from pleasant sleep on her family’s frontier homestead in that part of Massachusetts Bay Colony now called Maine.
Her mother has roused her. The homestead is under attack by Indians and French. Charis’ mother sends her out an upper story window onto adjacent branches of a wych elm that grows next to the house. Strapped to Charis’ back is her much younger sister, Mary. They are bound for a forest hiding place known to the family, a kind of frontier safe room in the deep forest.
Charis has begun her journey into the World of Wonders.
It’s quickly apparent that the raiding party that attacked the homestead has done a thorough job. There are no other survivors. Charis and Mary spend a night in hiding, but Mary does not survive long. Charis is alone to try to escape the hostiles. A fortunate bit of luck reunites her with the family’s steadfast work horse, Hortus. Astride the patient and intelligent animal, Charis navigates back to more welcoming locales.
The first segment of the book will remind readers of the works of James Fenimore Cooper, with the French, Indians and settlers vying with the wilderness.
When Charis arrives back in a more settled part of New England, she begins a new and different kind of journey, finding acceptance with families of good standing and working as a seamstress. No paradise is without its serpent, however, and added to the threat of attack by Indians and French is the menace within: these Puritans are quick to point and whisper “witchcraft” when they don’t understand something or they simply have a grudge against someone.
Despite Charis’ industry and good character, she arouses jealousy when the young goldsmith in the settlement, Jotham Herrick, courts her. Eventually, Herrick and Jotham decide to wed, and the announcement of their engagement sets in motion a wave of jealous maliciousness that forces Charis once more to seek safety in flight.
Youmans adds to the authenticity of the narrative by using many, many archaic words and rare usages. It’s enough to send a reader to a dictionary. The author is kind, however, and includes a handy glossary at the back of the book to aid in comprehension. The in-town portion of the book will remind readers of another author: Nathaniel Hawthorne. In fact, one of the characters in the book is named Hathorne, which was Hawthorne’s family name before he changed it — to hide his connection to the witch trials.
It’s no trial to read "Charis." It has a lovely and captivating heroine and, in Hortus, one of the best animal heroes in literature since Buck in "The Call of The Wild." Join Charis in her journey through the World of Wonders and you will not be disappointed.