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The International Writers Magazine
:Childrens' Fiction

Charley Feather by Kate Pennington
Hodder Children’s Books Pub: November 17th 2005
Hardcover ISBN: 034087872X
Clare Sager review

t’s 1739, the streets of London are dark, dirty and rife with pickpockets and poverty. You might say some things never change. However, these days, you would not expect to be stopped on the motorway with the cry of "Stand and deliver" (unless you’re listening to Adam and the Ants at the time).

Pennington’s third novel (Tread Softly and Brief Candle being the other's under this pseudonym) explores an underworld of pickpockets, highwaymen and fences amid the lace and livery of the eighteenth century. We follow the fortunes and woes of Charley Feather, a young, yet nimble, highwayman with a secret.
Charley, is, in fact, 14-year-old Charlotte, a highwaywoman.

We first encounter our heroine among the crowd gathered to watch the infamous Dick Turpin hang. Here we witness the swift and severe justice served upon even the most trivial of criminals. Shortly after this experience that haunts Charley throughout the novel, events take a sharp dive for the worst: herself and her posse – including their leader, the dangerous Thomas Wild, fictitious son of the infamous Jonathan Wild, ‘Thief-Taker General’ – are discovered by the police. Charley narrowly escapes with one other, the deceitful Claude Delamare, also known as ‘Frenchy’. Little does she know that this Frenchman will have an irreversible, vital effect upon the rest of her life…

What follows is a thrilling adventure of lies, mistrust and humour which raises questions of identity and tensions between the sexes as our heroine masquerades as a boy, then reverts to her true, female self and must face differing behaviour from those around her. These are valuable, thoughtful issues for the age group this novel would suit (10-14 year olds). I am also sure that young women reading this would appreciate the active nature of our heroine – she is not passive and is involved in the plot to decide the fate of not only herself, but of her London. As Charley herself says "I am Charley Feather, highwayman, and will bow down to no man!" – you should maintain your own identity and not hand over power of your fate to anyone. Apart from the "highwayman" bit, that’s a great message for the women of tomorrow.
We tread an interesting path between idealised and realistic portrayal of a highwayman’s life. On the one hand Charley longs to return to the freedom of this lifestyle when she is hiding from her foes and it does seem fun and grand to swagger as an outlaw, yet one the other side, we see danger, death and our heroine landing in a pile of cow dung during a narrow escape.

Pennington crafts life into this period with her vivid conjuring of place and creation of characters we actually care about. What’s more, she does this without leaving the reader bogged down in an excess of historical detail (while a number of historical novels seem as if the author is merely showing off how much research they’ve done). The characters do not serve the period, rather the period serves as their backdrop, which is as it should be.

With this historical detail, we see an unsentimental portrayal of the plight of the poor in this era. It would be a valuable read for those studying the eighteenth century to give them a feel for the age that is often lacking in dry textbooks.

Writing with flair, Pennington incorporates thieves’ cant and her character’s voice without confusing the reader with an excess of false thee’s and thou’s. The are occasions when a change of tense feels clumsy and thus stands out, but the quality of the rest of the writing makes this minor slip forgivable.
This is an exciting novel of dangerous men on dark streets playing games of trust and treachery and one girl trying to stay alive through it all – a thrilling ride you should read!
© Clare Sager November 2005

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Clare Sager has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Portsmouth


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