I would call Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest a creative nonfiction because unlike historical fiction, there’s more history than fiction. However, it’s the creative part, the few characters drawn from the writer’s brain, that makes what is essentially a history so interesting. This is my second book like this; the first, Poland: A Novel James A. Michener, was great enough that I had to read another. Now I want to read Rutherfurd’s entire England series. And I can, because this is my relaxing year of reading.
The Forest begins with what many believe is the beginning of English history: the Norman Conquest starring William the Conqueror in 1066. The main families which march through the next 1,000 years through the pages of the book begin here. There’s a Norman woman, a Norman knight, a Saxon lord, Saxon peasants, British (as in the natives before the Saxons) forest peasants, fishermen, and merchants. All this takes place in the New Forest — so named at the time of William the Conqueror — in southern England just north of the Isle of Wright.
Throughout the centuries, these people interacted with each other, intermarried, and found themselves involved in politics and issues both local and national. History as seen through this distinct set of people in this distinct geographical area yields interesting insights into the wider English history.
While a 1,000-year history of England that delves into individuals would be ridiculously long, a 1,000-year history of this one part, the New Forest, is just perfect. I loved seeing both the isolation and the connection in this rural community.
There were many characters, a veritable millennium worth of genealogy for the major five families. The Albions, the Martels, and the Prides were some of my favorite. The Albions were descended from Saxon lords that lived in Britain before the Normans came (and then were degraded to keepers of the New Forest), and the Martels were descendants of Norman knights. The Prides were Saxon forest peasants who always had gumption and managed to stick it out through centuries rife with social and political unrest.
What I liked about this book was that not all the obvious moments in England’s history were documented, like Henry VIII’s reign and the American Revolution. Those parts that were more important to the New Forest residents were in here though, such as William the Conqueror’s son, Rufus’, death, and the rise and fall of the Beaulieu Abbey (which might not see important, but it is when the abbey was a major employer to the Forest people).
The story starts with the 1900s when a Pride girl (I forget her name), comes to the New Forest for a news story because she’s a reporter. It ends with that same girl realizing that her ancestors came from the forest and that place is home to her. It’s terribly fascinating and touching.
The writing was beautiful and touching, making you love the characters — even the annoying ones (there are no villains here because they are all heroes in their own lives) — and cheer for them.
I would read all the other books written by Rutherfurd given the time, one of the best signs that a book is great. What I loved was watching the people of the New Forest survive invasion, corruption, famine, and poverty with such grit and determination. These people instilled hardiness and hope in all who came after, giving England the strength to endure and survive all that it has.