*For Welsh review, please change language toggle switch on top of page*
Interest age: 15+ / adult
Reading age: 12+ (confident readers)
*indirect references to sexual assault and violence
“Doedd yr Uwch-gapten William Parlby ddim mewn tymer rhy dda. A dweud y gwir, roedd croen ei din ar ei dalcen ers ben bore.”
In the last few years Gwasg Carreg Gwalch has been busy producing a lot of books relating to Welsh history over the different periods. This is good news given the emphasis that’ll be placed on learning about our own history in the New Curriculum for Wales. In this novel, we go back to Victorian times, to the time of the Rebecca riots, a tumultuous time in mid west Wales.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve visited these turbulent times in our children’s literature – the king himself, T. Llew Jones, published a novel about the riots in 1974 under the title Cri'r Dylluan. That was a cracking novel, so there’s some stiff competition!
Quick Historical Background
Without going into too much detail and in case you are not familiar, this was a time when farmers and peasants in rural Wales rebelled and protested against unreasonable tolls along Welsh roads. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the people of Wales were very poor. A series of poor harvests had led to a huge increase in the cost of living and life was very hard. On top of all this, they were expected to pay high tolls in order to use the roads to move goods etc. The farmers felt that they were being treated unfairly and oppressed, so they started to take action. They went out late at night disguised in women's clothes so they could burn or destroy the tollhouses.
What happens in the book? (no spoilers!)
The dragoons (soldiers) have arrived in the Carmarthenshire area because of the dispute over the protests. As the farmers reach the end of their tether, more tollhouses are torn down and Colonel Love is determined to catch the perpetrators. The soldiers want to catch them red handed and put an end to Becca’s protests once and for all, but Becca and her 'girls', with their network of hidden messages, are always one step ahead.
We get toknow a number of local characters such as the blacksmith’s family, the gypsy family and the landlord families of the local pubs. It’s clear that everyone knows something’s going on, but nobody wants to mention Beca. The novel focuses on Elin, a fifteen-year-old girl, who lives in the pub in Llangadog. She gets drawn into all the trouble with the tollhouses, and her very life is in danger. She’ll literally have to run for her life! Whilst all this is going on, dark secrets from her past emerge, relating to the mother and father she never knew. What she learns could turn her whole family life upside down. What we also realise is, even the most respectable people in society have got something to hide… Not everyone is as they seem.
Perhaps my definition of a 'children's book' differs to that of the publisher. I personally wouldn't recommend this story for primary children, mainly because the text is too challenging for the majority, in my experience. I’ve seen it suggested as suitable for ages '8-12+’ and I tend to agree. An audience of 15+ would be more likely to appreciate this novel and fully understand the context. As a lover of history, I have been lapping up the historical fiction novels by Myrddin ap Dafydd of late, and I particularly like the author's attention to detail and his research work is very thorough. I love the bits at the back of the book that talk about the process of creating the story. Despite this, I must admit, I didn't enjoy this one as much as Drws Du yn Nhonypandy and Y Goron yn y Chwarel. The story just didn’t have me hooked for some reason. Having said that, many of the messages in the book are very relevant to us today, especially in these uncertain political times.
I’m sure some valuable classroom would result from reading this novel, for example by comparing and contrasting some of the inequalities of the period with the situation in Wales today. Given the recent increase in the cost of living, the contemptuous treatment of Wales coming from Westminster and the endless rhetoric about 'the strength of the union', I hope that the people of Wales will find the 'spirit of Becca' once again, so that we can make our voices heard (but maybe in a different way to wearing petticoats and burning buildings down!)
Cân dda gan Tecwyn Ifan!