When you first enter the genealogy community, one of the first personalities you will most likely encounter is Dr Janet Few. Ever-present in the social-media community with interesting blog-posts, speeches and presentations, Janet’s passion for all things historical and genealogy related is evident through her place in the community. She is also the president of The Family History Federation, a society that “promotes interest in researching family history and encourages membership of member societies”. Respected by many and supportive of young genealogists – like us here at The Hidden Branch – Janet has made us all feel very welcome and at home.
I had the pleasure of reading Janet’s Sins As Red As Scarlet over the past few months, a wonderful novel about a young school-girl named Martha who is introduced to historical and genealogical study through a summer school project. Coming to terms with the tumultuous lives of the people of 17th century Bideford, Devon, England and the complexities of the past, Martha is able to make sense of the happenings in her own life.
This novel is wonderfully written, a delight to all those who fancy a trip into the past. Family historians in particular will enjoy this genealogy-infused story, a believable portrayal of a young girl who is drawn into our world through a school history project – something I relate strongly to! However, this historical novel also delightfully doubles as a coming-of-age story through Martha’s own timeline – dealing with bullies, a post-COVID-19 world and teenage school-life – which is something we have all had to face in our lifetime. In that sense, the modern reader is able to engage with the historical scenes through the character of Martha, who acts as a medium between present day and the past. This makes the novel immersive, even for someone without much knowledge of the past.
One can tell that this novel was written by a genealogist. The introduction of each character fits realistically and logically into the historical, political and social context of 17th century Bideford. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, in fact, they barely feel like characters at all. These are people – whose lives have been influenced by their upbringing, their experience and the choices they have made. This is a difficult task for an author – to make the characters feel like real people. Only an author with a real sense of history, a strong grasp on sociology and the understanding and empathy of a genealogist could really succeed in this task. This is what makes Sins As Red As Scarlet stand out from other fiction.
Not only is the character building in Sins brilliant, but the amount of research involved has allowed this novel to transport the reader back to the 17th century. The language and culture represented in each scene is so intricate and specialised to the setting that one could be mistaken for thinking that the author herself had visited 17th century Bideford. It is obvious that Janet has involved herself in enormous amounts of research not only for this novel, but also for building a context to place her own family history and academic research in. This love and yearning for knowing and understanding the past is clearly represented in the novel through Martha, the main character, who loves to ask why.
The story can feel disjointed at times as it is written from many different perspectives and each chapter is focused on someone new, but this technique works quite well because each chapter ties into the previous one with ease. Martha’s story, an integral part of the novel, is the binding feature that connects the experiences in 17th century Bideford together. Not only is Martha’s story a mirror of the events that occurred in the past, but it is also a clever way to show that although hundreds of years have passed by, themes of class, race, and prejudice are still prevalent in modern society.
In conclusion, Sins As Red As Scarlet is a delightful but heavy-hitting journey into humanity both past and present. This novel is appropriate for young adults and adults, but younger kids may have trouble with the themes presented. For anyone wishing to introduce themselves to genealogy or to rediscover that initial feeling when you first fell in love with the research and the discovery, this book is absolutely for you.
I would like to conclude by thanking Janet for providing me with the opportunity to read and review Sins As Red As Scarlet. If you are interested in more of Janet’s work, explore her range of non-fiction and fiction novels through her website, which I have linked below.
Click here to explore Janet’s website.
View Sins As Red As Scarlet here.