The ripple effect
May 10, 2007

When I was twelve or thirteen a teacher gave me a book because she thought I might like it. The book was The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff—and the teacher was oh so right. It followed a young Roman officer, Marcus, on his first command in the frontier fort of Isca Dumnoniorum, present day Exeter in Britain, circa 129 A.D.. The larger story was about him trying to find out what happened to his father, a centurion in the infamous Lost Ninth Legion, whom legend said marched into the wilds of Caledonia never to be heard of again. 

I ate that book up, and started scouring all the libraries in the area for other books in the series, all set in Roman Britain and the Dark Ages, and tracing many generations of the same family as they lived through the chaos and war of those years. I never found them all and back in the day there were no used book dealers all hooked up by the Internet so I rarely found one in stores. 

I remember what a huge sense of victory I felt when I actually did find a Sutcliff book in a store: The Shield Ring. I can't remember now if I found it in a new or used bookstore. Another big moment came when I browsed the bookshelf of a neighbor and found Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff's version of the Arthurian saga. It was a nice hardcover edition and I had to beg for weeks before she'd let me borrow it. I didn't immediately tear into it like I wanted to. I had a sense that it might be amongst the last of Sutcliff's books I'd be able to lay hands on because I really had wrung out all the libraries and I wanted to savor it. In point of fact, it was the last Sutcliff book I read. 

Many years flowed under the bridge of my life and I'd occasionally think about those Sutcliff books I'd tried so hard to find and never did. I always remembered The Eagle of the Ninth with a special place in my heart: it became one of those primogenitor books for me, one that burned like a steady light in the back of my imagination. My character from The Making Blood, Caius Cassivellaunus, was a kind of tribute to those books. Because of them I was fascinated by Dark Age Britain and always wanted to write something about it. 

Writing about Caius, I think, is what finally prompted me to remember Ms. Sutcliff and the profound effect she'd had on my imagination. I started looking for those books online. I didn't have to look far. Amazon had a newly published copy of Eagle and some of the others. I immediately bought Eagle and when it arrived, I put it in the To Be Read Pile...and never read it. I was afraid to, truth be told, afraid that it wouldn't be as special as I remembered, and then that luminous place in my heart would be tarnished. It must have sat in that pile for four or five years until last week when I came across Rosemary Sutcliff again while researching something else on the Net. It was time to take a chance, I thought. 

I'm thrilled to report that I love this book as much as I loved it all those years ago, that practically every page tells me just how much of Ms. Sutcliff's style and worldview I internalized, how she taught me so much about telling a damned good story with heart. I owe her a great deal.  

I owe the teacher who gave me that book so many years ago a great deal, too. Rarely do teachers ever find out how far the ripples spread from their good deeds, from those they teach and out into the world. Teachers create a little piece of eternity inside their students when they do things like this, the ripples spreading on in little and big ways, as long as someone remembers and shares what they remember with the people they know.

Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson