The Kingdom series of books by Cynthia Voigt was a favorite of mine in my teen years and I’ve decided to revisit them to see if they are still as great as I remember. The four stories, Jackaroo, On Fortune’s Wheel, The Wings of a Falcon, and Elske (sadly, many of the names have now been changed when they were reissued with new covers, but stories are the same, I hope) are loosely connected, being set in and around a kingdom somewhat like a medieval English or European kingdom. Jackaroo stood out to me at the time I read it, because there’s not any magic in it, yet there’s something magically remote about the Kingdom.
Jackaroo is actually my least favorite in the series. My favorite was always On Fortune’s Wheel as it’s an adventure/romance, but The Wings of a Falcon is a very close second, and I always think of that book being the masterpiece of her series. Elske I’ve only read a couple of times and don’t remember much about it. It never seemed to fit as well with the original trilogy of stories, but as I read through them again, that view may change.
With this recent rereading of Jackaroo, I understand now why although I liked the world, I didn’t like the story as much as the second book: Teenage girls tend to crave romances, and although there is a love story in the book, it’s far from the focal point. But I realize now that the love story, quiet as it is, is actually fantastic, but something my teen self was just not into at the time. Burl seemed so unsuited for the heroine, Gwyn, being a servant and often described from her point of view as someone who is just always there and pining away for her sister who won’t have him. Plus, he didn’t talk much. Now, firmly an adult, I can see the quiet strength he gives her, helping Gwyn to be Gwyn. And, isn’t that often what people want in a romantic partner? Just someone who will have their back and be invested in them? Gwyn eventually realizes this and is happy to be with him in the end.
What really caught my attention the first time around, though, was the possibility of adventure, because Jackaroo is a hero of the people, much like Robin Hood or Zorro. Like Zorro. Although Jackaroo’s past and rumored deeds are mentioned in the book, it’s not a rousing tale of adventure like I had wanted: The book offers more than that. Gwyn is an innkeeper’s daughter, a spirited girl and a hard worker, capable in a way the rest of her family are not, and determined never to marry. Because her family is better off than some, they have to endure constant mutterings against them, something that I’m sure any successful person will recognize. And no matter how much the successful people give back to those poorer than them, it’s never enough. Ruling over everyone is the king, the earls, and the lords. Gwyn has a heart for the people and how especially the lords’ boots press heavily upon them. The laws the lords have put in place aren’t really to serve justice, but merely to serve the desires of the lords. It’s a situation common as mud, which is why tales like Robin Hood and Zorro resonate so much. Won’t someone give the people a break, already?
When a lord and his son require a party to join them for a mapmaking excursion north in the dead of winter, Gwen and Burl end up being their guides. In a blizzard, they get separated and Gwen and the “lordling” as she calls him, end up snowbound for weeks in a hut not very far from the inn. Gwen is at first resolved to keep up appearances and treat the boy as if he were her master and she his servant, but as time passes and boredom ensues, the pair become friends and both are able to see the opposite class as human. The lordling even teaches her to read, something that is forbidden to regular people.
After the winter, the injustice in the Kingdom eats away at Gwen, and when she finds a set of clothes that seem exactly like something Jackaroo would wear, she takes up his mask and pretends to be him, doing good deeds as she can, not fully realizing how much danger she is in by her actions. Burl sorts it out and she falls for him largely because he, too, sees the injustice and wants to change it, but it’s enough for her that he merely sees it, really sees it. In fact, Gwen discovers quite a lot of people admire and even want to be Jackaroo, because Jackaroo is outside society and can be a catalyst for positive change.
Although Jackaroo doesn’t feel dated in a bad way, there’s a distinct 1980s feel about the story and the writing. It was published mid-decade and the world is sometimes akin to The Princess Bride or Willow (minus the magic), and a little connected to Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club (class differences, rich and poor). It’s a classic in a similar way that those movies are classic. There’s nostalgia for those who lived in the 80s, but also something new to learn upon subsequent readings. I’m so glad that I reread Jackaroo and gained a new appreciation for the many layers of the story, Gwen’s concerns, the love story, the politics, the history, the keen insight into human nature, and so on, and I can’t wait to get started reading On Fortune’s Wheel. The world of the Kingdom would be fairly easy to adapt to screen if anyone every got the notion. Cynthia Voigt is a gem of a writer.