A SAFE CONDUCT by Peter Vansittart


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 Britisher Vansittart (A Choice of Murder, 1993) enhances his impressive achievement of 20-odd novels and children's books with this erudite and mannered--if dispassionate--tale of a famous children's revolt in late-15th-century Germany. In the long shadow of the Graf's castle on Broken Mountain, careworn villagers eke out their brutish, short lives. Among them is the much-maligned young Hans, a slow-witted shepherd animated only when playing his pipe, telling one of his mystical stories, or basking in the presence of the dazzling, mysterious Albrecht. Effortlessly influencing all the children, not Hans alone, this lad carries himself like one of the highborn yet has no apparent family. When the Graf--himself a man of mystery believed to have starved his noncompliant wife to death--raises taxes to cover his crushing debt, Albrecht seizes the moment to foment rebellion, first inciting the children to burn an ancient community barn, then setting up a fortified camp on the grounds, to which the disgruntled and dispossessed flock from afar with families and weapons. Shepherd Hans, recently elected king of the annual spring rites, becomes the titular head, the real power still residing with Albrecht. As summer waxes and wanes, the Graf's troops are rebuffed and humiliated, until the Graf sends an offer for a parley at the castle with rebel leaders. Hans accepts, going alone, and is quickly hanged by the Graf despite his promise of safe conduct. With the piper's death and Albrecht's defection (as it happens, he's the Graf's bastard and sole heir), the rebellion collapses and the rebels flee, but the Graf finds himself ridiculed at court for breaking his word. Not a heart-pounding vision of class struggle in the Middle Ages, but in its own subtle way this evokes the historical moment and more, with a timeless portrait of cruel manipulation and power corrupted.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1996
ISBN: 0-7206-0953-4
Page count: 184pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1995


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