OUTLAWS OF THE BORDER (1936)

1936 Isaac Pitman & Sons.

All the sheep and cattle, all the goats and fowls, had been rounded up and brought to places of safety. The villagers -- there were only about a couple dozen altogether -- were herded into a garrison room, and told not to get in the way. In the outer bailey, a smith was putting an edge on weapons, and it was clear that every one hoped for a fight when the Scots came back past the castle.

Elinor and the women tore and chopped lengths of thin woolen cloth into bandages, in case anybody should be wounded. Elinor also took charge of all the stores of food, and had them carried to the strongest innermost parts of the castle. There was a well in the courtyard and another inside the keep, but Elinor ordered the servants to draw off gallons of drinking-water and store it in vats in the cellar alongside the casks of wine.

All were kept busy all day. There was very little grumbling. It made a change to have danger to face.

The four Grame siblings live comfortably – or as comfortably as one can in a draughty stone castle in the fourteenth century – with their loving father, Sir William. John, the oldest, is mature for his fifteen years, but it is his sister Elinor who has the wisdom to strategize and invent a solid plan of action for any situation. Roger, John and Elinor's younger brother, is excitable and brave in the way boys can be, while the youngest, Margaret, expects to take part in all activities, even if they aren't suited for her physical stamina or mercurial temperament. Together, they look for opportunities to find adventure and test their mettle, and have learned to time their departure from the castle to when the watchman is preoccupied, thus effectively sneaking out. It is during one of these excursions that they meet a small group of border outlaws, who have run afoul of the sheriff for trying to help a young woman wed the man she loves against her guardian's wishes. This guardian, the young Grames learn, is in fact their wicked Uncle Grame of Overburn.

At the start of the autumn season, Sir William departs to join the crusades, taking some of the castle knights with him. He leaves John in charge, and soon trouble arrives in the form of two visitors: the Grame's uncle and their dangerous cousin. Elinor advises John that they treat the men as their guests, and provide a lavish dinner for them in an attempt by the siblings to appear more gullible and less guarded than they are. An effort to kill the children in their bed that night fails, and when the Overburn clan is cast out, uncle and cousin return with men, ready to lay siege to Grame Castle. They usher Margaret to sanctuary at the abbey, which is connected through a hidden passage, and winter arrives, resulting in a waiting game and a battle of wills and wits between the castle inhabitants and the devious relatives who look for their chance to strike.

One of the rarest of all Gladys Mitchell’s published titles, Outlaws of the Border is also a unique hybrid: it’s the only novel for young readers set in a non-contemporary time, and it’s the only children’s book to be delivered using the Stephen Hockaby pseudonym. The result, a medieval adventure tale featuring four young siblings who must defend the castle while their father is away at the Crusades, certainly illustrates the author’s strengths as a writer of observant historical fiction, but it also feels thematically and narratively constrained. Mitchell’s other Hockaby titles are admirably adult in tone and events, and don’t shy away from the grimness to be found in her characters’ lives. Notably, the trio of children protagonists in Outlaws of the Border faces life-or-death situations and stakes: for example, John soberly calculates that they will all be killed if villainous Uncle Overburn and his army capture the castle. But the conclusion of the conflict is never really in doubt, either for the kids or for the reader, and within the descriptive prose it feels like punches are pulled to avoid alienating her youthful audience. While Mitchell’s other teen novels have a similar kids-win-the-day inevitability, they are all contemporary in setting; Outlaws, removed and placed in a rougher, more dangerous historical era, calls attention to its safe (and ultimately artificial) genre expectations because of this contrast.

There are elements that merit praise, and the author’s knowledgeable attention to detail and clear interest in 14th century Britain belong at the top of the list. Because the world is so vividly drawn – the workings of and hierarchy within the castle, the knights taking their orders from the fearless youth who is now master of the domain during his father's absence – it is easy for both young and old readers to invest in the story. The central conflict (defending a castle from attack) is one that any teen reader might happily use as the basis for imaginative role play.

While both the scheming relatives and the friendly border outlaws are presented without any real definition, each of the four Grame siblings are nicely delineated. Even young Margaret, just a child and more of a liability than an asset when trouble arises, is a fully fleshed character, sulky and tempestuous one moment, delighted by a new discovery the next. Mitchell writes that initially the girl was thrilled to live in exile at the nunnery, eating almonds and receiving attention from the kindly sisters, who adopt her as a mascot. Eventually, though, the ascetic lifestyle of cold floors, fasting, and pre-dawn matins takes its toll, and Margaret is soon ready to return to the castle to fight marauders. It’s an observation that informs both plot and personality, and it does so convincingly and economically.

 While Outlaws of the Border has little of the depth or pathos found in Mitchell’s best Hockaby title, Seven Stars and Orion (also set in the Middle Ages), it was intended for an audience that wasn’t looking for Orion’s level of sophistication or scope. The book still entertains, and it is impossible to disguise Gladys Mitchell’s writing style, which is proper and informed and very interested in people (some more than others) and the times and places they inhabit.

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