I was only thirteen or fourteen when I was first enchanted by Between the Forest and the Hills. Even as a young teenager I recognized this book was something out of the ordinary and it became an instant lifelong favorite. Author Ann Lawrence labels it a Historical Fantasy, but I find it defies categorization, effortlessly surpassing typical genres. You could describe it as a lighthearted frolic through lush forests with two children, or as a humorous yet profound philosophical dialogue between a Christian and a pagan, or as a thoughtful exploration of different ethnic groups learning to coexist. And there is also a fascinating theme running throughout about the existence of miracles. And a generous dosage of humor strewn throughout for good measure.
HISTORY AND PLOT
Lawrence set Between the Forest and the Hills in a fascinating place and era historically. Isculum is a tiny garrison town in western Briton, situated between the forest and the hills. Nearly forgotten by a declining Roman Empire, Isculum has become self sufficient. Between the Forest and the Hills begins as a leisurely stroll through this lazy little village where the town leaders bicker about theology, write down the history of their town, and wonder about the future of their isolated outpost. Young Falx, ward of the Prefect, stirs up the story and town by rescuing a little Saxon Princess, revealing the proximity of barbarians. The children’s meeting becomes the catalyst for war, alliance, friendship, and miracles.
Lawrence vividly portrays the uneasy melding of Roman, British, and Saxon cultures brought about through necessity. In the beginning of the story, Roman and Briton are already living peacefully together after generations of intermarriage. But the Roman-British town is fearful of the proximity of the barbarian Saxons. At first the only option seems to be war and the annihilation of one party. But through a miracle involving two talking ravens and the still unwritten Hallelujah Chorus, both sides reconsider and wonder if cooperation might be possible. The Saxon Torcula decides, “Even to be neutral, we must try to be friends.” The wise Roman prefect Frontalis agrees to an alliance, observing, “So the Saxons may outnumber the Britons in the end- so what? It’s the land that makes the people. In another hundred- two hundred years, they will be us. All we have to do is hold things together until the process is complete.” Lawrence certainly introduces serious and profound questions about immigration for a young adult book. Agree or disagree with her conclusions as you will, Between the Forest and the Hills is a great springboard for an immigration discussion.
CONVERSATION, FRIENDSHIP, AND CONVERSION
The books is punctuated by a series of exchanges about Christianity between Frontalis and Malleus, the Christian bishop. Lawrence paints Frontalis as a most erudite and noble minded pagan whose eventual conversion is the result of decades of friendship and discussion with the good bishop. These conversations offer great reflections points for the reader. For example, Malleus talks about the limited understanding of human beings at one point, “Uncertsinity is the perpetual lot of mortal creatures… We’ve no choice but to trust what we don’t understand, accept what we can’t believe, and walk where there’s no path that we can see.”
Between the Forest and the Hills has an interesting thread of theme about miracles running throughout the book. The still somewhat superstitious British converts are inclined to see a miracle from the saintly bishop at every turn, to his comic distress. This raises an interesting question for Malleus: if seeing a natural event as a miracle brings people to God, is there anything wrong with seeing God’s hand in that event and crediting it to him? Malleus struggles with this question, feeling hopelessness and discouragement. But in his lowest moment of doubting God’s intervention, a true miracle occurs with his staff bursting forth into flower as a sign of hope.
CLEAN AND CREATIVE
I would wholeheartedly recommend Between the Forest and the Hills for advanced twelve year old readers to high schoolers. The publisher Bethlehem books recommends 14 and up, possibly because of the detail about the bishop, Malleus, having been married and having a son (this is in fact in keeping with the historical setting since priestly celibacy was not yet a rule). I loved Between the Forest and the Hills as a young teen and loved it more as an adult, recognizing more clearly how rare it is to find such a clean, creative book for teenagers. My hope is your teenagers love it as much as I did!