Oh, that War of the Roses – and no, this is not a reference to that black comedy starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. The real Wars of the Roses was a spate of civil wars between the noble houses of York and Lancaster that spanned some 30 years in England. Follow the trail of murders and betrayals, to say the least of powerless minions pressed to serve and die at the hand of a few, and you get the idea that today’s political bickering amounts to little more than baby babble.
An author that book club has enjoyed before, Phillipa Gregory covers this war through two novels that have been grouped as the “Cousin’s War” series. So the book club members chose between the Red Queen and the White Queen. As I’m a sort-of-fan of Henry Tudor (represented by the Red Rose), I opted for the Red Queen.
As many wars are men’s stories, it was intriguing to study conflict from the perspective of a girl, who is sheltered and has limited access to information or power. In the case of Margaret Lancaster (Red Queen), she’s no beauty to be celebrated; instead, she believes a devout life is her calling. Too bad for her that she’s nobility and nothing more than a strategic pawn to be played in various power games. Through the book we get a glimpse of her early visions, and how her convictions were built around them to guide her future decisions.
One quick aside: though I’m sure Margaret Lancaster was devout, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the quirky film Dogma: “Any documented occasion when some yahoo claims God has spoken to them, they’re speaking to me [Metatron]. Or they’re talking to themselves.”
Over time Margaret learns how to execute her duties to family and country, while quietly building her case for what she sees as her true calling: put the king chosen by God on the throne of England and end the fighting.
For a conflict that’s 500 years old, Gregory keeps the pace and timing moving along so you feel like you’re experiencing the same fits and starts, as well as the unknowns that anyone would have gone through during that time. You know how it will end, but you don’t know who may live to see it.
If I were to place myself in Margaret’s role, I can see how clinging to your convictions may be the only sanity-saver you have…even if people will think you’re off your gourd. While her instincts may not have been understood, they were what ultimately kept her alive. Perhaps that’s the ultimate compliment to the author, here: some chapters you sympathized with our heroine, and in others you couldn’t be angrier at her and her decisions.
I’ll confess, I’m hooked: now I have to go back and read The White Queen to see how the other side took the story…