Apr 27, 2010

'White Ravens' by Owen Sheers - A Review

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white ravens by owen sheers, front cover detail
First impression, a Wizard of Wales, a storyteller with a subtle pen for a wand, 'White Ravens' is a must read. Owen Sheers has a rare talent. Like the Florida gator, he is both ancient and today.

The Second Branch of the Mabinogion contains the story of ‘Brânwen, Daughter of Llyr’. Sheers requested this tale because of its impact upon his own life. If you have not read The Mabinogion, I urge you to read this novella first. It will deepen your appreciation and widen your view of the art and skill of the Bards of old, as well as Owen Sheers.

The author begins by drawing the reader into a modern day Welsh tale of tragedy and high adventure involving a family who raise sheep. Rhian is watching the sunrise as it turns the Thames gold. On a bench by the Tower of London, she recalls her life, at age six her father abandons the family. Ten years later her mother dies leaving her to run the household with Dewi and Sion her brothers to do the sheep farming. The third tragedy comes about six years later. Due to a Foot and Mouth breakout, the sheep are shot.

Dewi and Sion get involved in sheep napping (pun intended), steeling a hundred head at a time and butchering them while on the way to London to sell on the black market. All goes well until the driver comes down sick.

This book should become a N.Y. Times bestseller, Seren publishing house of Wales and author Owen Sheers gets a big thumbs up. Seren publishers commissioned ten Welsh writers to do some retelling of the national treasure 'The Mabinogion'. Theme: keep these old tales at the heart of a new story.

The tale of Rhian and her brothers is complex and compelling. However, when she meets an old man with a cane on the park bench he tells her another tale. This is a tale about a WWII Irish soldier named Matthew O’Connell. Wounded in Italy Matthew is given an assignment to go to a remote farm in Wales to pick up six raven chicks. The mission is Top Secret as ordered by Prime Minister Churchill. While waiting for the chicks to mature for traveling Matthew falls in love with Brânwen, sister of the farmer Ben. A whirlwind affair ending with a wedding two weeks later, a returning brother Evan from the war casts a black cloud on the couple that night.

After returning the chicks to London Matthew and his bride leave for Ireland and his farm home on the coast below Dublin. Farm life is terrible for both as Matthew’s family hate the British and his Welsh wife. Matthew turns sullen and Brânwen sends a message to Ben about how terrible life is. Ben and Evan show up one night to rescue Brânwen. Evan shoots Matthew and knocks their two year old son into the fire.

Later Matthew recovers from the shot, saved by his pocket watch. By the time he contacts Ben in Wales Brânwen has died of a broken heart.

But with a stroke of genius, Sheers redeems both the young woman and the old man in a surprise ending. In addition to these tales, Seren includes a synopsis of the original tale from The Mabinogion. Also an afterword by the author at the back of the book is inspiring.

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr
English text here
More information about
the Tower of London
Buy 'White Ravens'

Review by Bill Tillman

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