The Ravens of Farne: book review

A Tale of St. Cuthbert
By Donna Farley, illustrated by Heather Wayward
Conciliar Press, 2010: ISBN 978-0-9822770-5-8
32 pages

Relatively unknown in North America, St. Cuthbert is one of Britain’s most beloved saints and is very much a saint for today’s world. In addition to his devout and deeply-rooted faith, he treasured and protected the wildlife on the island he lived on, including, when he became bishop, banning the harvesting of down from the eider ducks who nested in the area.

The Ravens of Farne, by my friend Donna Farley takes one of the tales of St. Cuthbert, and retells it wonderfully for young children in this picture book.

Stories today often grab the reader by the throat and drag them into the story, throttling them and hauling the reader through the plot ups and downs. The ride may be exciting, but it’s often also tiring – whether in a picture book or a book for an older child or young adult. Not this book. The free verse lines enfold you in the story and lead naturally and easily to the next moment, and the next and the next. The end leaves you feeling refreshed, hopeful and happy.

The description, as befits a picture book, is minimal but that doesn’t stop the story from being vivid, fresh and polished. Donna’s familiarity with the time period of St. Cuthbert allows her to use medieval literary devices in the story to good effect, and she has a master’s touch in knowing how to raise the tension just enough to encourage the step into the next page, without overdoing it for the themes and the story. She balances elements and images well. “The birds built nests to hold their eggs, and the monk built a place to hold his prayers” is one of my favourite lines in the book, just for that balance and paralleism.

Additionally, Donna weaves specific and factual information into the poem without a seam.
“. . . just Curthbert, God, and the birds of Farne./Oh the birds that fed and nested on Farne!/puffins and fulmars,/terns and gulls/cormorants and eider ducks – / linnets and pipits,/ warblers and sparrows/ . . . and a tribe of cheeky ravens.” The species flow into the lines of the poetry as naturally as they live on St. Cuthbert’s island.

Heather’s water colour illustrations are a perfect match for Donna’s text. They appear simple, but actually include an immense amount of detail, and each bird illustrated is not only identifiable as to species, but she gives them character and personality. The details of the monks’ habits, accessories and clothing look and feel natural to the time described.

The story itself is, like the illustrations, is deceptively simple seeming tale of offense, repentance and forgiveness. The ravens of Farne torment the Saint as he settles on the island and builds his house, sows and reaps his crops and receives his friends the monks as visitors. Finally, he loses his temper at them, and not until they beg his forgiveness is the situation sorted out. But it is and all of the characters in the story benefit from the ravens’ learning their lesson. It will hold children’s attention, and contains enough to engage a parent reading aloud to the child. A book I’d recommend for anyone – child or adult.

This is Donna’s second book – her first, Seasons of Grace, was first published in 2002 and her third, a young adult novel called Bearing the Saint, is coming out this summer from Conciliar. For more information on Donna and her writing, check out her blog pages, The Rafter’s Scriptorium, and A Spell for Refreshment of the Spirit. For some interesting information and more of Donna’s writing visit the St. Cuthbert page, Haiwefolc.

Donna’s books can be purchased at the Conciliar website (if you live in the USA) or on Amazon if you live outside the USA.


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