“It is all of ours and they are part of me”: The Pearl Thief, growing up, and loss

I’ve been wanting to write about Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief for months now; I read it early and it blew me away. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my deep love for all of Wein’s books, but the particular ways I loved it did surprise me. In fact, it’s a book that meant so much to me that I can’t quite write a proper review of it.

However, I do want to talk about one of the strands that’s really struck with me since I first read The Pearl Thief: the sense of loss and transience that weaves through the emotional heart of the plot. The plot is set in motion after the death of Julie’s grandfather, the Earl of Strathfearn. The estate at Strathfearn, which is almost as much home as Craig Castle, is going to become a school, due to the debts her grandfather left behind. But Julie and her mother and grandmother will have one last summer at Strathfearn, preparing to leave it.

The awareness of change and all the ambivalence Julie feels about it pervades so much of the story. This Julie is not yet the Julie of Code Name Verity, though she is recognizably herself (marvelous and heartbreaking). She’s younger and less assured in many ways, clinging to the past and memories of childhood, while also longing so badly to be grown up.

And yet even this isn’t entirely accurate. She misses the past, she mourns her grandfather and the loss of Strathfearn. But she’s also furious with him for the loss of it. She wants to be seen as grown up (see her meeting with Francis Dunbar, amongst other things). But she also isn’t entirely sure what kind of grown up she wants to be. Both the past and the future feel treacherous.

Summer stories, by their very definition, are almost always about brief moments. Bound on either side by the school year, their end is always implied even at the start. As Julie herself says, “I didn’t want the summer to begin. I didn’t want it to end.” But because they’re less structured, less formally bound, they’re also a chance for surprising things to happen. They can be a time of emotional intensity. (Another great example of this is Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s award-winning graphic novel, This One Summer.)

In this case, the feeling of both beginning and ending is tied to the fact that this is the last summer. I was reminded in some ways of I Capture the Castle while reading The Pearl Thief, because of the shared deep ambivalence about growing up, but also because of the loss or threatened loss of the beloved place.

On the one hand, it’s easy to look at the Murray-Beaufort-Stuart family, or indeed the Mortmains, and wonder why we should care about privileged people losing part of their privilege. On the other hand, that sense of exile, of losing the place that has shaped you just when you need it the most, is something I certainly recognize from my own life. It’s a theme that can resonate deeply with teen readers as they grapple with their own identity.

And indeed, it’s partly through this loss that Julie, the young granddaughter of the Earl of Strathfearn becomes Julie, becomes Queenie. As we see Julie come to terms with her losses, her past, and her future, we see her truly growing up. We see her learn that everything and everyone that’s been part of us is with us always.

(Please note that I took all quotes from an early copy and they may not match the final version exactly!)

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4 Comments

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4 responses to ““It is all of ours and they are part of me”: The Pearl Thief, growing up, and loss

  1. You know, it’s interesting and I would be interested to see a study on this, it’s interesting how we are trained from pretty young to look with sympathy on privileged people losing a bit of their privilege. Like I don’t know how many stories I’ve read about landed British gentry losing their homes between the wars. But it’s a lot! And I have been taught to find it unutterably poignant, and I DO in fact find it really poignant, but like — that’s a weird thing, isn’t it, about society? How many books have I read about legitimately broke people getting evicted from their shitty apartments for reasons they don’t control, and felt poignant about that? SOCIETY IS WEIRD MAUREEN.

    Also, though, I’m excited to read this. It sounds wonderful and nostalgic and poignant in a way that (dammit society) I am particularly susceptible to. And it sounds sad but manageably sad? Whereas I’ve never managed to go back to Code Name Verity and I doubt I ever will.

    • Maureen Eichner

      It really is very interesting, because it works so well on me too–and I’m all for dismantling all kinds of inherited privilege & etc. I wonder if it’s partly because of that fantasy-ish thing where for most of us the whole scene is just removed enough from reality that it’s possible to process what we can’t irl? I don’t know.

      TPT is definitely poignant, and I’m not sure how sad it actually would be without the touchstones of CNV to inform what’s happening? I don’t mean that it doesn’t stand alone, because I think it does, just that I have read and reread CNV so many times that it’s entirely impossible for me to separate the two. Please report back!

  2. I am Upset. How dare you do this to me. Ugh, what a review.

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