Pilgrimages have been made for thousands of years. "Some say the urge is as old as the instinct that makes geese migrate, that the very act of walking from sunup to star-time clears the mind, centers the soul."

Temple's novel is of a Christian pilgrimage in 1300. But more than that, it is historical fiction translated into informed make believe about Elenor, 14 and heir to Ramsay manor and 22-year-old Lord Thomas of Thornham whose return from the Crusades signals their arranged and impending marriage.Father Gregory asks, "Would you, Thomas, and you, Elenor, be willing to do penance for this whole community? . . . put aside considerations of your own happiness if it would restore the people of all Ramsay to spiritual health?"

Delaying the marriage and seeking health of any kind is what they both seek. Thomas is tormented by his efforts with the Crusades in the name of Christianity, and Elenor feels no compunction to marry a stranger. They both agree to leave on the journey from England through France to the shrine of Saint James in Spain.

The future of Ramsay depends on these two young people, their adherence to chastity and yet depending on each other while being open to the fates of the pilgrimage. Their goal is to take a record of the sins of the community and lay it on the altar of the cathedral in Santiago with prayers and humility.

The journey is not an easy one. "Painful and hard. How else can it pay for our sins?" Elenor and Thomas meet convicts and thugs. They also make helpful friends along the way, too, and in so doing learn much about life and their ultimate roles in a waiting Ramsay.

Temple's story is relevant. The two protagonists are not `bigger-than-life,' but vulnerable to the marching hordes. They are cheated and accosted. The loss of their horses leaves them on foot. At times they laugh and dance, lie under the stars and even find the pangs of romance - not to each other - as personal events. They do not breeze through their arduous pilgrimage unscathed but are injured physically and emotionally. Father Gregory knew they would be and although the author doesn't let us follow his anxiety, we know it is there.

The pilgrimage is the story. Temple has written with authority and energy. As a child she lived in France, attended Catholic schools (with six years of Latin that aided in the meticulous research of the novel) and knew the effort and acclaim of the journey to Santiago de Compostela. "Suddenly it was 30 years later. I found myself in a cold stone chapel in northern Spain . . . Right then, I became a pilgrim and took up Elenor's story.

Make-believe, empathy, study, dreaming. These are what the author brings to a story, and these are also what the reader brings. Together, author and reader transcend time to relive a history that we believe happened, 700 years ago."

This is a believable story since living in the Middle Ages when heraldry reigned is a dream of many readers. Finding spiritual solace and peace is also an often sought goal. For centuries this pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was and is repeated. I suspect that Temple supposes the young adult readers will suspend disbelief and `travel on the road' without question. For example, the religious issues of St. James, the building of a cathedral (which is well-documented), the ruling class of a feudal economy and basic possibilities of friendship and love are strata of reading in which readers will find pleasure.

The many levels of this story should not go without further explanation, however, and unfortunately the author does not, at least as a foreword in the novel, give additional facts that make the plot informative beyond fiction. It could, particularly about the pilgrimage itself. Book Links, a publication of American Library Association, has provided a fascinating profile of Temple with references that support her work and the knowledge to make this a terrific piece of historical fiction. It will greatly augment the story to know that more than 7,000 pilgrims passed through La Virgen del Camino in northern Spain last year alone to reach the supposed tomb and shrine of Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, the senior disciple-saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

The entire route in Spain is more than 500 miles from northern France (where it properly originates) and is now declared formally as a Cultural Route of Europe with blue-and-yellow sign posts along the way.

The Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela is based on a mix of myth, religious teaching and legend. James was the son of Zebedee and Salome (a sister of the Virgin Mary) thus making James and Jesus cousins. It is believed that James was present at the Crucifixion and was the first of the Twelve Apostles to suffer martyrdom. The mystery of how James' body was carried to the Galician harbor of Padron has many interpretations. But pilgrims believe that the body was interred in an old Roman burial ground thus making the trek to Spain a place of respect and worship.

As for the scallop, which is a talisman carried by all pilgrims (and in the story of "Ramsay Scallop"), it is said that Charlemagne adorned his banners with the symbol of the scallop shell as he took armies across the Pyrenees, waging a war in the name of Saint James. Little is known about why the Christians carry the symbol, only that they do, along with other essentials for the pilgrimage; a sturdy staff, a large hat and a gourd for drinking water.

View Comments

Even on today's pilgrimages to Spain, walkers are invited to stay the night in shared dormitorylike rooms; some like the Baroque monastery at Samos where the monks sing Gregorian chants as they have since the 8th century.

Reports are that the paths are smooth, often giving away to well-worn paving stones and cobbled streets. But the ritual is the same; all walkers or riders should call at the Pilgrim Office to signify the completion of their journey. (So long as they can prove they have walked or been on horseback for at least 60 miles, or having cycled for 120, they are formally declared a pilgrim). Next they visit the Baroque cathedral where prayers and a service of honor is conducted. Once these are completed the pilgrims walked past the effigy of Saint James the Pilgrim kissing the scallop shell in the statue.

Today, the pilgrims usually reserve passage home on the railroad or a nearby airport. Not so with Elenor and Thomas in "Ramsay Scallop." They returned by foot to England, sins and penance paid for.

"Ramsay Scallop" is a remarkable piece of historical fiction. The insight into the Middle Ages; the economic, political and religious issues along makes it eligible for an award. Temple's magnificent research and superior writing make this my choice for the Newbery or an Honor Book for 1995.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.