Reviewed by: L. Greg Graham
Every once in a great while the lucky reader finds a book that he wants to go on forever. Tom Fleck is such a book. A good historical novel takes the reader into a world that he knows little of and allows him to walk around in someone else’s life. A very good novel makes the reader want to live there. This novel transports the reader to the windswept pastures and fens of northeast England at the time of the Battle of Flodden. At first, 16th century England appears to be a well ploughed field until you discover that Henry VIII and his many wives assert no royal prerogatives here, and Elizabeth launches no fleets of plucky Englishmen to fend off the Spanish Armada. Instead, we live with common men trying to survive one of the bloodiest battles in English history.
This is the story of a landless cowherd working the less than bountiful lands of a minor lord in the north of England. His goal in life is to own a few acres so that he can pasture his own cattle and live in a house with a roof that does not leak on him and his sister. What are his assets? He’s a pretty good shot with a longbow, he has a gold piece that he dug out of an ancient burial mound, and he has a dog that does a good job of running down rabbits and retrieving them. I have no intention of summarizing the plot. Why spoil the fun of going along with Tom on his ride up to the borderlands?
I will say however, that I have always held a fascination for the borderlands between England and Scotland during the 15th and the 16th century. In many ways, these people are much more the cradles of American democracy than any documents signed by King John at Runnymede. The attitudes these northerners hold are the same as those found in America a century later: advancement should be based upon skill and drive rather than on birth right; the absolute rejection of the belief that one’s station in life is determined at birth; self reliance, and a general distrust of authority.
Harry Nicholson could easily have set this story on the frontier in 18th century America. He wouldn’t have even had to change the names. Those border clans basically peopled America over the next century bringing with them their drive and spirit.
Nicholson’s descriptions are exquisite. His love for the land comes through on every page. This novel is practically a tribute to the landforms, the fauna and the flora of northeast England. The author treats the reader to the trills of the larks, and the ‘pee-wit’ cries of the plovers. We see the forget-me-nots, the speedwells, and the eyebright that grow along the lanes. During the Battle of Flodden, the author takes the time to describe a covey of partridge scared up by the sound of the cannon fire and the look of the trampled wild irises growing along a creek the day after the battle.
The author depicts everyday life. Lords and ladies are mentioned only because they must be, but the author’s eye is ever on the common people. Tom meets good and bad folk. The soldiers are not faceless extras. They are conscripts far from home who must fend for themselves. For them battle is a scary, brutal business where few are lucky to survive unharmed. Tom, on the eve of Flodden, recites his version the soldier’s lament that he fights for master’s he does not like against men he does not hate for a cause the means nothing to him.” Apparently nothing has changed over the centuries.
I would recommend this book to anyone who appreciates a good adventure about people that don’t usually have their story told. I wish Harry Nicholson good luck on this novel, and I truly hope it is the first of many.