Something loosens in Odette. The spacious feeling is unfamiliar—frightening and pleasant at once. She takes a deep breath of the air and feels she has not breathed so deeply in a long time.
“I heard something very strange last night,” she tells Nicois. “A donkey, I think.”
Nick laughs. “You and everyone else. That was Anne. He doesn’t mean to wake us all up. He can’t help himself.”
“Clever name for a donkey,” Odette says (since âne means "donkey.”) “Though it is a female’s name.”
“It just seems to fit. People have tried others. The Great Disruptor was one. But really, he’s softhearted.”
Odette considers telling Nick about understanding Anne’s brays. But he would think she was silly, which she isn’t. She must just have been tired, she tells herself.
Nicois’s eyes light up. “You must meet him! He stands in the small field in the shadows of the cathedral. Let me show you. I’ll show you all of the Nevers! Its roads and alleys, the paths to the river, the faïence factories—they’re closed up now, nothing but piles of broken pottery. Let me show you why Nevers is the best town in the world.”
“How would you know?” Odette laughs. “You’ve never been to any other.”
“It must be the best town in the world,” Nicois says, “because I am perfectly happy here.”
Odette looks at him doubtfully.
He smiles. “You will be too.”
Nevers takes place in late-eighteenth-century rural France where the French Revolution and Reign of Terror have rocked society, but life is still a daily struggle for 14-year-old Odette. One morning, she and her mother arrive in a new town (the Nevers of the book’s title), having stowed away in a cheese cart. After yet another disaster in their lives, they are starting again and anywhere will do. Because Odette is the practical one, cleaning up and looking after her flighty mother Anneline, she immediately sets to work finding a place to live and a way to make money. They make a home in an empty gatehouse, and Odette begins to clean and garden and even becomes a midwife’s assistant. She makes friends with Nicois, the boy next door, who shows her around town and teaches her about its many stories. A shifty villain is trying to prevent Anneline and Odette from finding a long-lost relative and discovering secrets about their pasts. Odette’s journey is a joy to read; she is a thoughtful, resourceful girl who continues to learn the power of knowledge, problem-solving and love.
Readers will learn a little bit about the French Revolution and about its bloody aftermath. Nevers touches on the importance of ideals and how the promise of positive concepts like liberty and equality can be perverted. Most valuable, though, is the sense of what everyday life was like for French villagers several hundred years ago. Cassidy illuminates routines and ways of thinking that feel intensely authentic — sometimes markedly different and other times similar to today. She never tries too hard to convince us that we are in another time and place, but every little detail (Odette’s wooden shoes, the ritual of washing day, the ingredients needed for a meal) seems so fitting and evocative.
Friendship and love are very important to the novel. Odette makes a wonderful friend in Nicois, and the development of their relationship is central to the book. The two are very different, and she recognizes in him a strength different but just as essential as her own; he is generous and luminous while she is loyal and determined. Odette also reflects on her relationship with one of her six stepfathers and all the simple lessons of life he taught her which allowed her to grow into a strong, resourceful girl. And then there is Anneline, Odette’s mother. For all of her selfishness, she does love Odette, and during the events of the novel, she begins to consider her daughter’s feelings for the first time. Much of the book’s humour comes from Anneline, who is dreamy, unlucky, accident-prone and the unwitting cause of the deaths of many people, including five of her own husbands. Her inability to be practical has put enormous strain on Odette, but the two still have a close and loving relationship. Nevers also takes its animal characters seriously. Anne, the donkey (who is actually human), is very memorable, but so are a family of chickens and a piglet who befriends them.
Nevers contains straightforward subplots or discussions concerning contraception, midwifery, intersex babies, poverty, suicide, and love between members of the same sex. Each topic is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way and is deftly integrated into the storyline of the book. It is bold to include such frank conversations about how children are born and ruminations about mortality (one of Odette’s stepfathers was a grave-digger), but it feels totally natural and appropriate for the target age range. The novel also uses quite challenging vocabulary - words like peripatetic, tumult, frivolous. These shouldn’t be anything for readers to stumble over as they turn up only occasionally.
Though Nevers is, for the most part, a realistic story, the novel also contains a wonderful strand of magic. Early on, Odette is kept awake by the braying of the town donkey, Anne. Odette is quite certain she can understand the donkey’s sounds and that he is speaking Latin. Because it sounds crazy, she puts it out of her mind, but she later uncovers that the donkey is actually a duke transformed by a spell, and that it is her destiny to restore him to his original form. Adding this sprinkle of magic to a story about the past makes the grind of hard work and poverty a little more palatable, and by turning the story into a bit of a fairy tale, Cassidy riffs on that genre’s recognizable combination of spunky heroes, gritty lessons and supernatural intervention.
The pacing is fantastic, as are the plot, character arcs and overall storytelling structure. The dialogue is breezy and believable, with just the right blend of period cadence mixed with a few modern phrases thrown in to keep it from getting stilted. Cassidy perfectly balances the dialogue with sections where action and interaction are summarized to keep the plot and characterization moving along. Nevers’ being written in the present tense brings a real sense of immediacy and movement.
Nevers is a funny story, simply told, with a delightful heroine. It has been a long time since I read such a convincing, relevant historical novel for children.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, British Columbia.