Bethlehem Books ISBN 9781932350524
MS Grades 7 and up Rating: 4
Padraic, 15 years old in 1735, is one of three students who are in their last year at a secret Irish school. Gloria Whelan’s The Hedge School takes place during a time in history when Roman Catholics were forbidden by law to attend or teach school or to worship in a Catholic church. But the people revered education, so they created their own schools that met under hedgerows, moving often to avoid discovery. Schoolmasters and priests alike were always in danger; people were jailed or hung at the landowners’ discretion for breaking any law, and there was no legal recourse.
Despite the desperate times, Padraic, Rose and Liam are irrepressible– full of stories of heroes of the Irish resistance to English rule and determined to enact their own rebellions. When the son of a landowner shows them a hidden way to his family’s stables, as a ploy to force Rose to give him her colt, Padraic and the resistance fighters use that knowledge to visit mischief on the hated landowner. Unfortunately, Padraic, reveling in his success, makes a hasty decision that puts everyone in danger from the law.
The hedge school is itself a strong symbol of resistance, but the central idea of the story is the weft of resistance woven through the warp of English power to determine the daily lives of the Irish peasantry. Whalen’s deft portrayal of teenage bluster and recklessness, and especially of Padraic and Rose, give life to the story. She shows Padraic’s close relationships with his family and teacher and his growth through those relationships. It is their coming to his aid without censure that helps him to realize his mistakes, learn from them, and make better decisions for his and Ireland’s future. Whelan’s mastery of complex stories is evident in her plot and inclusion of historical details that set up Padraic’s hatred of the English convincingly. However, her descriptions of the evil landowner, the selfless resistant fighter, the villainous churl, and others rely on stereotypical attitudes, dialogue, and behaviors, which dilute the emotional impact of the story.
Diane Carver Sekeres, CLJ