Humanities for the Unbound Mind / My Bookshelf

Book Review ~ Walking the Streets of Ancient Salisbury

Originally published November 4, 2012

Sarum, by Edward Rutherfurd, available for under $15.00

So, this week we are back to reviewing books from the library in my head (and in my basement). Some unknown years ago I managed to acquire a copy of a rather large book (1056 pages) entitled Sarum. At the time I wasn’t really drawn to the types of historical fiction that started with the first cooling rock. Rutherfurd changed that opinion forever.

The book is written about Salisbury, England and starts not quite at the first cooling rock, but at least at the point that England, destined to become an empire, becomes an island. What I found intriguing about Rutherfurd is his ability to tell fiction through the eyes of the man and woman on the street (or around the fire). Yes, all the events and dates we learned in world history are there, but they happen in the parlors and dining rooms, shops and farmhouses, of the people of each age. He is able to engage the reader with each turn of events by building his story using five families whose personality and physical traits seem to follow them throughout history; even as their fortunes change.

I also found his interpretations and presentations fascinating. One bit of story line starts with an ancient hunter/gatherer who carves a stone into a representation of his beloved wife. This bit of carving is found during the building of the great cathedral by a worker. Thinking that it was a precious idol from some ancient ancestor, the worker hides it high in the superstructure of the church where he is working. A love note from the distant past preserved in a monument ostensibly constructed for love of God in the distant future. Almost poetic, don’t you think?

Another sequence I found delightful was the great debate over whether or not women have souls as well as the spiritual struggle of many when England began the transition from Catholic to Protestant doctrine. Rutherfurd describes the heart-rending decisions of a populace well saturated in the teaching of a Roman church taking the first steps toward a different religious practice. Is one sure to earn eternal damnation if one accepts the Eucharist from the hand of a priest NOT ordained by Rome? Is it sacrilege to accept the Eucharist from a man who does not believe in transubstantiation; a belief that the wine literally turns into the blood of Christ, the bread into his body? This argument is again played out in living rooms, dining rooms, and the thoughts of the characters.

Some would say that the book can come across as an anthology of sorts rather than a cohesive tale. I think that Rutherfurd chose what, for him and many others, were the defining points of the place of his birth and wove them into story lines of the many generations, sometime with short vignettes, sometimes with well developed tales. This somehow echoes the amount of information we have for each era. He covers such things as the construction of Stonehenge, the building of the Cathedral, the arrival, departure and absorption of England’s many conquerors, royal marriages, World War II, the Reformation, the Black Death and many more momentous and forgotten moments of English history. To cover this much territory with any sense of consistency is quite a challenge. I believe the challenge is well met.

Meticulous in his research, skilled in his story-telling, you will find this author will walk you through the streets of Salisbury throughout its long history of else-when. Say hello to folks when you visit.

How do you like your history served up? Text book style? Narrative, but all factual? Cast in light of fictional tales? What parts of history have you grown to love? If there was any other time that you could live in, what would it be? I really love to hear from folks!  Drop a line.

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