Faith Sunderly wants her father’s love almost as much as she wants to follow in his footsteps as a scientist, but the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, renowned naturalist, discounts Faith’s abilities and values her only for her obedience and usefulness. She is a girl, and in his words, a daughter “will never be anything but a burden.” Of course his attitude is part of the mid-19th century British culture in which the story is set. Education is reserved for sons. Daughters should focus on manners, appearance, and, as it turns out, survival.
In The Lie Tree Frances Hardinge drops her readers into a time when the underpinnings of belief are shifting. The Origin of Species is newly published, paleontology is in its infancy, and some fear fossil discoveries may contradict the biblical creation story. Reverend Sunderly risks everything to acquire a plant, the fruit of which will reveal the truth only if it is first fed on lies. When her father ends up dead, Faith takes over the care and feeding of the plant as she investigates what she is certain is a murder. She must live up to her father’s final request: “Show me how clever you can be, Faith.”
Hardinge is skilled at getting into the skin of an adolescent girl who is determined not to be sidelined by gender. In fact, when Faith needs something, she takes advantage of female stereotypes to manipulate the men she encounters even allowing the local doctor to measure her skull in support of his hobby: gathering data to prove people with bigger skulls are more intelligent. Naturally the good doctor believes his data prove females are less intelligent than men since, on average, they have smaller skulls. While Faith executes her schemes, she resents the way her mother flirts and connives to get favors from the doctor and the local curate even as Faith herself enlists the curate’s son to aid in her investigation.
In fact, the novel is full of delicious ironies. Reverend Sundry will destroy lives to save the faith. He and Faith lie to get at the truth. Women allow men to believe they pull all the strings….
That said, don’t dare think of this as a girl’s book! The themes tackled here are universal. A child struggles to get a parent’s love and attention. An adolescent is disturbed to learn that the adults in her life are deeply flawed, but judges less as she discovers how low she will stoop to achieve justice for a man who may not deserve it. This is a coming of age book that happens to have a female protagonist.
Male or female, a reader will be moved by a protagonist who longs to be acknowledged for who she actually is. One scene captures this theme beautifully:
By the light of the lantern Faith could make out the marble plaques on the walls. Tonight her eyes snagged on all the female names.
Anne, beloved mother of . . .
In memory of his dear sister Elizabeth . . .
And here also lies Amelia, his loving wife . . .
Who had they been, all these mothers and sisters and wives? What were they now? Moons, blank and faceless, gleaming with borrowed light, each spinning loyally around a bigger sphere.
“Invisible,” said Faith under her breath.
The Lie Tree is the Costa Children’s Book of the Year for 2015.
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