Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt.
For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Genre: Historical, Young Adult
Publisher: Atheneum Books
Publication date: First published 1985
Paperback: 368 pages
“False, they were all of them false, the stories; as false as the stories of fairies dancing in moonlight glades on Midsummer Night.”
But they served a purpose. In a distant time and far-off kingdom, life is hard. People don’t have enough to eat, and winter is upon them. There’s little that offers hope, and many turn to the legends of Jackaroo — the masked outlaw hero who rides at night giving aid to the helpless and coin to the destitute — for solace.
Gwyn, the Innkeeper’s daughter — sensitive, industrious, and independent — is too practical to believe such tales. But when a snowstorm forces her and a young Lordling to seek refuge in an abandoned house, Gwyn wonders if perhaps she has been too cynical. Hidden away in an old forgotten cupboard, Gwyn discovers a package — a cloak, a mask, a sword….Jackaroo? Could the stories be true?
Stand alone or series: First in the Jackaroo series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
REVIEW & DISCUSSION
Thea’s Take: WOW. I was not sure what to expect when I started Jackaroo – I’d never heard of the book before, and I didn’t think I’d ever read Cynthia Voigt before (this actually turned out to be false – I’ve read a few of her books before, but completely forgot! More on this in Question 4 below). All I knew going into Jackaroo was that the book was some kind of variation on Robin Hood/Zorro, with the legend of a masked vigilante protecting the common people from the rich, the cruel, and the corrupt. I didn’t know that this would actually be something akin to a hero origin story; nor did I expect this to be such a quiet and beautifully written book, with a richly detailed world and one hell of a protagonist.
In other words: Jackaroo took me by surprise, and I loved it.
Ana’s Take: I have to echo Thea’s thoughts here – I’ve never read Cynthia Voigt before and didn’t know what to expect from Jackaroo. And it really surprised me in a good way for its quietness, the strength of its protagonist and the story itself. I have a few “buts” but overall, I really liked it too.
1. Jackaroo tells the story of Gwyn, the Innkeeper’s daughter, and her coming of age from willful young woman to donning the mantle of Jackaroo. What did you think of this origin story? Was it believable in your opinion?
Thea: I loved this origin story; I found it both clever in the way it draws on older tropes and refreshing in its quiet simplicity. Gwyn, our heroine, is the daughter of the village Innkeeper – compared to many in the village, Gwyn lives what seems to be a charmed life. Her father is prosperous and has several holdings, and the steadily increasing taxes levied on the commoners by the Lords of the land are painful, but affordable for the relatively affluent family. In fact, Gwyn has FOUR gold coins for her dowry. Sure, she has to work hard at the Inn, cleaning and serving and caring for the garden and the horses in good hard labor, but compared to the rest of the townspeople? Gwyn lives a good life.
That said, Gwyn is not happy with her quiet life, and she certainly isn’t eager to marry anyone. Although she can’t quite put it into words (she’s not a very introspective character), Gwyn is frustrated with her life, with her coddled younger brother, with the quiet status quo. Her origin story is one fueled by this pent up frustration, and her desire to act while others do nothing. And… I loved that. I love that Gwyn’s story is a very subdued one that unfolds slowly, and that from the moment she discovers Jackaroo’s boots, mask and feathered cap that it’s only a matter of time before she dons the cowl – fueled by a unique combination of empathy for others and her caged-in frustration.
Most of all? I love that the figure of Jackaroo isn’t glorified or melodramatically turned into some kind of legendary badass. I love the actual story behind the mantle, the people who have and will wear the mask, and Gwyn’s understanding that being the hero of legend comes at an incredible cost.
Ana: I agree with everything that Thea said about Gwyn and won’t repeat the same points. Instead, I’d like to dwell on the Jackaroo figure and how that was incorporated into the story.
In the book, Jackaroo is a legendary figure, very similar to Robin Hood. Everybody knows the stories about his exploits. It’s a theme that runs through the story and appears in many ways. It speaks to the nature of storytelling as well as to the building of legendary figures and to the need of heroism. With regards to the latter, I loved how the idea of Jackaroo as a hero was developed over time, depending on the needs of those who tell the story. I loved the actual story about those behind the figure and how that was used in the story itself, mantle that was donned by different people from all social strata.
2. Let’s talk more specifically about Gwyn, the main character of this book. How did you feel about this particular heroine? Love her? Hate her? Was she too exceptional or special?
Thea: I loved Gwyn, and I love the way the synopsis of this book paints this heroine: “sensitive, industrious, and independent.” Yes, this is all very true. Gwyn is sympathetic to the pain and suffering of others, she’s hard-working, and she questions the mores of her world. I’m not talking about anachronistic, typical YA heroines that feel far too contemporary for the eras they supposedly inhabit – I mean that Gwyn questions things within the context and framework of her society, and her challenges to the accepted order of things feel genuine without making her seem too contemporary. As to the question of exceptionalism, I can understand why Gwyn might be read or interpreted as such. In my opinion? I don’t think she falls into that trap of being infuriatingly Super Special. Gwyn does not want to marry, but she’s not the only woman who does not marry in her society; she’s strong and capable, but so are so many of the other characters Gwyn interacts with. What distinguishes Gwyn is her combination of sympathy and gumption, but that also felt well-developed in my opinion. And, while she’s a character with so many praises, she’s also not perfect – she’s headstrong to a fault (although she owns up to her mistakes), she’s jealous of her younger siblings (even if she doesn’t admit it to herself), and while she’s wonderfully observant about some things she is a complete dolt about others.
Suffice it to say, I am a big fan of Gwyn’s. (The only thing that felt a little heavy-handed to me was Gwyn’s immediate aptness at reading and writing, but this is a minor nitpick.)
Ana: I loved her. I loved her viewpoint and how it functioned to astutely observe the mores and the stratification of that society. It’s funny how Gwyn’s narrative is not exactly introspective in a way that rehashes her feelings and thoughts in so many detailed words but one that shows more than tells how she feels and thinks. It’s a story that is full of angst and frustration without being angsty and frustrating if that makes sense at all?
I agree that she is not “exceptional” in the way that she questions or feels about things. There were other characters who did so as well and who choose their own path despite the consequences. Which is why I felt that the ending was so disappointing but more on that later.
3. What about worldbuilding? Jackaroo‘s world is a model of historical/medieval-ish western Europe, with strict dividing lines of wealth, bloodlines, and specific gender roles. What’s your take on this setup?
Thea: The actual world of Jackaroo is pretty standard historical fare – western medieval-ish setting, women in diminished societal roles, the poor very poor, and so on and so forth. That said, Jackaroo has a level of detail and authenticity that is hard to find in current YA (or current historical novels in general). Most often, the historical setting is glamorized or viewed from the perspective of a beautiful or high-born main character – sympathetic princesses, brave and strong noblemen, etc. I very much appreciated the far less glamorous approach in Jackaroo, with its focus on daily life for the commoner and the disenfranchised. Even though Gwyn is the daughter of a respected Innkeeper, and compared to others is relatively well-off, her life is a hard one (and a far cry from the life of a Lord, as we see with her interactions with a particular mapmaker and his young noble son).
My biggest gripe with this traditional type of world setup – other than it being so freaking familiar, of course – is that often the gender roles or other societal norms aren’t challenged. I am very, very pleased to say that
Ana: I am conflicted about this one.
Although I do think those roles and societal norms are challenged, I think ultimately within the story, those were still reinforced because of how the story ended? Gwyn spent most of the novel challenging the way that she had few choices and the way that marriages are arranged but in the end she still ends up married because she had no choice. Similarly, although the story shows the awkward, fraught divide between the rich and the poor, the Rich Character is still the one with All the Answers and who proves to be Good? I do not want to dismiss the fact that the book does provoke and challenges and does it so really well.
But that ending left a bad taste in my mouth. It is all the more strange because it was the ending that I was rooting for (with a measure of freedom for Gwyn, and I loved who she ended up with very much) but it was the how she got there that gives me pause. I wished Gwyn had reached that point on her own terms and not because she didn’t have any choice at that stage. I hate that she arrived at the conclusion that her romantic interest was the right one for her only after it was pointed out to her. That said: it worries me that the fact that I am saying this, implies that stories of people who have fewer choices, who are not privileged, and have to deal with what life throws at them and find happiness any way they can are not important, because obviously they are.
I said I was conflicted. Really curious to see what everybody thought of it.
4. Cynthia Voigt is the author of many novels (seriously, look at all of those books). Have you read any of her books before? Will you try any others or continue with this series? If you have read the series already, do you recommend us to keep on reading?
Thea: Earlier in this discussion, and when I started this book, I thought I hadn’t read any Cynthia Voigt books before. This actually turns out not to be true – I have read a few of Voigt’s books when I was a tween and teen. The one that jumps out at me the most? Izzy, Willy-Nilly – the story of a high school girl who is in a terrible car accident that costs her a leg, and leads her to a very different type of life. Man, that book was deep and hard to read, but I recall reading it and enjoying it for its rawness and for the friendship between the two main characters. (I also remember David and Jonathan, and, vaguely, Homecoming).
As for the rest of the books in the Kingdom series? HELL YES I will be reading them. I also will be reading Voigt’s 2013 release, Mister Max very soon.
Ana: I haven’t read any Voigt before but I have Mister Max soon. Thea, joint?
And I want to continue with the Kingdom series!
5. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?
Thea: I think my favorite thing about Jackaroo is Gwyn – hands down. I also very much appreciated the relationship between Gwyn and her younger brother Tad, plus the other young man she’s shored up with for a while (the young Lordling). I loved the prickly interactions with her bitter yet loving mother, her steadfast father, and the surprise appearance of another family member late in the book.
Of course, there’s also the romance aspect. It’s a bit The Princess Bride – and while I was a little dissatisfied with the way everything ends, I did love the backburner romance between Gwyn and the solid, quiet Burl.
Ana: I loved Gwyn above all but also really appreciated the quietness of the novel overall. I also loved the take on legends and stories and their importance in creating a myth that was known to everybody.
Like I said, I didn’t like the ending even though it was the ending I wanted.
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!