The Pearl Thief
Code Name: Verity is one of the most memorable YA novels I have ever read. A breathtaking story about a young Scottish woman taken prisoner for being a spy in Nazi Germany, it was heart wrenching, enlightening, beautiful, and lyrical. The Pearl Thief is the prequel to that tale, a look at Julia before she became Verity.
It was meant to be a great lark. Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart, fifteen years of age and feeling quite grown up, books her own trip to Strathfearn House. The maternal ancestral estate is being sold off to pay debts and she will be helping her grandmother, mother and whichever brothers show up pack the last of the belongings, readying some for auction and others to be moved to Craig Castle, where her parents live. It will be a great surprise to everyone to have her appear two days early, arriving by means of her own ingenuity and gumption.
Of course the surprise turns out to be on her. Not only is her luggage lost during the trip but no one is at home when she arrives. She helps herself to a bath and some left-about clean clothes. Then, determined to get a good start on her summer holiday, she heads out to the banks of the River Fearn to lie on some rocks and get some sun. Her next moment of awareness is to awaken to a pounding headache in a hospital.
Her friend, Mary, the town librarian is sitting beside her and is overjoyed when Julia awakens. Julia has been in hospital for two days with a nasty lump on the back of her head. No one in the family had been expecting her, so when she wasn’t home they hadn’t looked for her till the planned arrival date. The hospital staff hadn’t realized who she was and since Julia had been brought in by tinkers (Scottish gypsies) who found her on a river path they had assumed she was one of them. When Mary goes to call the family to let them know Julia is awake, Julia receives her first real lesson in class privilege. The nurse not only refuses to get her a cup of water because she won’t wait on “the likes of you”, she proceeds to chase off the tinkers who come to check on Julia a few minutes later and do give her a drink. She is intensely relieved when her own family shows up and alerts everyone to just who they are dealing with. After that she isn’t expected to go thirsty for hours on end!
A few more days of rest and recuperation see Julia proceeding home to once again launch her summer vacation but it is to be a very strange holiday indeed. Her fascination with the tinker family that saved her leads to her making some new friends who change her perspective on life. The builders turning the ancestral home into a boys’ school destroy some beloved treasures – and unearth others. Most importantly, her memory of what lead to her being hospitalized with a lump on her head comes back in bits and pieces, slowly revealing a secret Strathfearn House has kept for many years.
There is a period in every young person’s life when they turn onto the path they will take into adulthood. This is the story of how Julia spent a summer becoming the person who would eventually turn into Verity. Before our eyes she will choose being daring over being wise, being brave over being cautious, being clever over being smart, being heroic above all else and solidifying her ideal that charm covers a multitude of sins. She’ll develop crushes – on Ellen, the queenly tinker girl slightly older than she is, and on Frank Dunbar, the man in charge of turning Strathfearn from a family home into a school. And of course, she will solve a great mystery.
The author does a superb job of character continuity here. Fans of Verity will see her beginnings in the sometimes vapid, always resilient Julia. It’s clear exactly how and why one turns into the other.
The author also does wonderful work in creating a story that stands well completely on its own. Fans of Code Name: Verity will enjoy spending time with their indefatigable heroine once more but new readers needn’t fear spoilers or that they won’t be able to follow along; this book is its own complete tale.
The story did have some very minor flaws in execution – an easily guessed villain and the pacing being off at times caused the tale to lag a bit. I also felt the scenes with Ellen were a bit forced, as though the author knew the two girls weren’t natural friends and couldn’t quite work out how to put them together.
Some of the content might be considered a bit too adult for younger YA readers. There is a well done but rather horrifying scene where a grown man essentially forces himself on Julia, even after she pleads with him to stop. It doesn’t amount to full rape but it is physical sexual assault. What makes it most difficult to read are Julia’s pleas and explanations which are completely ignored by her assailant. Fortunately, justice is served in this instance. Julia exchanges numerous kisses with other girls, most notably several passionate ones with Ellen while they’re lying in a bed together. The affair of her mother’s lady’s maid is mentioned, as is the violent altercation said ladies maid has with her lover. I think each instance is handled appropriately for the type of novel this is.
The Pearl Thief provides some interesting background information on a beloved character as well as being a good story in its own right. Interesting and well-written, I would recommend it to any fans of novels about the WWII time period.