, , , , , ,

FrancieFor a long time, thanks to a middle-grade anthology, all I knew of Francie Nolan was that she borrowed a book every day – two on Saturdays. And that every Saturday the second book was If I Were King.

The story of François Villon was more wonderful each time she read it. Sometimes she worried for fear the book would be lost in the library and she’d never be able to read it again…

Francie even begins to copy it on a notebook – and then gives up, because it’s not like the book. Being blessed with a house full of books, I seldom used borrowed from the library as a child – but I could understand both the urge to read a beloved book again and again, and the pang at the idea of not being able to read it anymore.

I would have loved to read more about Francie, but the anthology had gone lost, and I couldn’t remember the title or the author… You must understand that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, while translated in Italian, is very little known here, and it took decades before the Internet allowed me to track the title and purchase a copy. So I read it, and loved it – and there it was again: the story of François Villon, that Francie borrowed every Saturday from the library…IfIWereKing1

Then a couple of months ago, in one of those roundabout ways in which one discovers authors, I made my acquaintance with Justin Huntly McCarthy and, in his bibliography, what should I find, but If I Were King?

This is Francie’s book! I thought, and found it on Project Gutenberg, and downloaded, and began it. To be frank, I was rather afraid it would prove one of those Victorian things, with the Impossibly Handsome & Noble Hero, the Impossibly Beautiful & Sweet Heroine, the Impossibly Ugly and Evil Villain, and so on… Instead, it was a pleasant surprise. Victorian it is – and very theatrical – but very colourful, with a cast of quirky and reasonably rounded characters, both historical and fictional, a Paris delightfully described to resemble painted scenery, a general air of whimsy, and even a meta-fictional touch – a tongue-in-cheek historian’s little game.

One sees how it would fascinate an imaginative child, and also how lovely it must have been in its stage incarnation – with the tavern, the rose garden, the crowded square…

So in the end the book I read because of a character in another book proved a nice read. Thank you, Francie. And if I’ve made you curious, you can find If I Were King here. It’s a fanciful little thing in make-believe colours – good for a summer afternoon or a December night, by the fire, the sort that goes so well with a cup of tea and chocolate cookies.