Part mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction, part romance. This is a book that will give you insight into the American Revolution and laugh at the same time. The Sherwood Ring, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, will also make you want to run out and find out if your family has an ancestral home, family jewelry or family ghosts!
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Poor Peggy Grahame has spent all her life following her father around the world. Her mother had died when she was born, and since she was a tiny infant, her father has either dumped her on nannies, at various schools, left her with friends, and once she got old enough or when his money ran out, dragged her around the world with him. He’s never been affectionate, and scarcely seemed to notice that she was alive. Until the afternoon before he died.
On his deathbed, he apologizes for the years of neglect, and tells Peggy that he’s sending her to live with his older brother Enos at the ancestral family mansion, Rest-and-be-thankful, in New Jerusalem, New York. He tells her a little about her family and more about the history of the house, including the fact (in a quite matter of fact tone) that it’s haunted. He also tells her that she’d be better off not telling Uncle Enos if she does see one of the ghosts, since Enos has spent his entire life surrounded by antiques, longing to meet the family ghosts. Peggy’s father also tells her that he wrote to Enos that he was sending her there, and that she wouldn’t be any trouble. He gives her sketchy directions on how to get there, and just a few days later, she’s on her way.
When Peggy arranges for her train to stop at the New Jerusalem station, she discovers that Rest-and-be-Thankful is seven miles away. Since no one is expecting her and there’s no taxi service, no clerks or workers at the tiny station, she’ll have to walk, toting her luggage, down wet and muddy dirt roads. Luckily, the train conductor takes pity on her, and manages to have the train stop at a spot where Peggy will only have to walk about two miles instead of seven. Still, it’s down a rough track, not a real road, and when she comes to a abrupt stop in the track with paths dividing to either side, Peggy is lost.
She’s about to give up in despair when a beautiful girl in a red cloak mounted on a black horse appears behind her and stops to ask if she needs help. Truly grateful, Peggy explains that she’s trying to get to Rest-and-be-thankful, and asks which path to take. The other girl considers, then tells her to take the left-side path, where a few feet down the road, she’ll find a young man repairing a small car that will be able to help her. Peggy turns to look down the road, and when she turns back to thank the girl, she and her horse have vanished into the shadows of the right-side path.
Following the directions, Peggy does indeed find a young man giving a lecture to the car he’s attempting to repair. Peggy can’t miss the British accent, and the young man introduces himself as Pat Thorne, explaining that he’s a student on a grant, studying the history of guerrilla warfare during the Revolutionary War. By a strange stroke of fate, before his car broke down, he was on his way to meet her uncle, Enos Grahame. He offers to take her there, once he’s fixed the car. As they chat over the engine, Peggy realizes that she likes Pat; he’s very personable and has a fun outlook on life. He gives her some details on his research grant–though it, he’s trying to solve the mystery of an ancestor, who was involved in the Revolution in the New York area, and he thinks that her Uncle Enos, a noted scholar in the area, might be able to help him.
Arriving together at Rest-and-be-thankful, both are impressed at the sight of Uncle Enos. But what had been a very formal introduction and greeting from the elderly man suddenly turns into something very different when Enos learns who Pat is. He throws the young man out of the house, forbidding him to come back or to see Peggy ever again. Both Peggy and Pat are confused, but Pat reluctantly leaves, vowing to see Peggy, with or without permission from Enos. Peggy is then relegated, in Uncle Enos’ mind, at least, to the role of a child. He sends her to her room, doing everything but patting her on the head and telling her to play nicely and not bother the grown-ups.
Still confused, but tired from her travels, Peggy heads up to her room. On the way upstairs to unpack and see what her room is like, she stops in front of a painting on the landing. It’s a life-sized portrait of the girl in the red cloak and her horse, looking just the way Peggy saw her that afternoon. But the plaque under the painting reads “Barbara Grahame at the age of sixteen, painted by John Singleton Copley, 1773.” Peggy has met her first ghost.
Soon, Peggy is trying to please Uncle Enos, get out of the house to see Pat and meeting with Barbara, her older brother Richard, and Peaceable, the dashing spy. In the process of talking to two of her ancestors and their…friend? acquaintance? prisoner?…she finds out quite a lot about her family history, the American Revolution, the English soldiers stationed in the area, Revolutionary spies, and even (or maybe especially) true love. Will Peggy manage to put everything together and see what the stories she’s being told really mean? Will her relationship with Uncle Enos ever get better? Will he learn to see her as something more than a child? Will she ever manage to see Pat again? And then there’s the mystery of the Grahame fortune and Pat’s ancestor…are the ghosts trying to tell her something not just about the past, but about the present as well?
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I love this book, from the characters to the dialogue to the historical background. There are many sly hints about coming events and humorous stories that point out the true sacrifices made during a war…on both sides. Who knew that tory spies could be just as dashing and bold as patriotic soldiers…and funny besides? I love the situations that Barbara, Richard and Peaceable relate to Peggy, each time giving her a clue to something that will help her in the present. Their stories breathe life into history, and make it real. They also make you want to know them, to join them in their adventures. (And, as a teenage reader, I have to admit I had a total crush on Peaceable.)
Peggy’s situation is not quite as hopeless as it appears. She has her work cut out for her, taming the crotchety Uncle Enos, but with the help of her ancestors, she has more than luck on her side.
Elizabeth Marie Pope was a professor of English for thirty-eight years. She wrote The Sherwood Ring in 1958, and her second book, the Newbery-Award winning The Perilous Gard (a previous Old Favorite), in 1974. Although I’m sure she published many academic papers, these were her only two novels. That’s a shame, because both are probably on my top twenty list of books every girl should read.
Since the fifth grade is currently studying spies in the American Revolution, I would recommend The Sherwood Ring to the entire class. However, even if you’re not a Weston fifth grader, you would enjoy this book. It is a bit of a romance, as well as a spy story, and a humorous historical fiction, so it should appeal to a wide range of readers. This would be best for fifth through eighth grade readers though, and would probably be preferred by girls, although if boys can get past the girly covers, I think they would enjoy it as well.
So give The Sherwood Ring a try, and let me know what you think. I think you’ll like it!